Florida Legislature returns to Capitol this week in run-up to 2021 session

Here’s what to watch for as the Legislature’s 120 members gather in Tallahassee for committees….

Florida Legislature returns to Capitol this week in run-up to 2021 session

Top of the agenda: How to write a state budget with revenues ravaged by the pandemic.

James Call
 |  Capital Bureau

Florida Legislature returns to Capitol this week in run-up to 2021 session 1

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Protesters chant as they march to the Historic Capitol

Protesters shout “no justice, no peace” as they march to Florida’s Historic Capitol.

Alicia Devine, Tallahassee Democrat

State revenues ravaged by the pandemic. Civil unrest that spiked this past year. The ongoing rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine

Lawmakers will tackle those issues and more as they begin five weeks of committee meetings on Monday, a lead-up to the 2021 legislative session that opens March 2. 

Traditionally, the first week of meetings is an opportunity for newly elected members to receive instructions on procedures and decorum, and for returning members to get up to speed on their new committee assignments. 

But tradition has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. The Capitol is still closed to the public, and there will be limited seating because of social distancing requirements. 

Here’s what to watch for as the Legislature’s 120 members gather in Tallahassee:

Economic slowdown caused by COVID-19

Months of quarantine have led to jobs and fortunes being lost that may take Florida a decade to recoup, according to state economists.  

Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee will be briefed on an expected billion-dollar shortfall in revenue collections for the next budget year, on top of about $2 billion less than expected this budget year. 

“There will be budget reductions, most likely across the board,” said state Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee. 

Alexander sits on the Appropriations Committee and will attend a separate budget workshop, also scheduled for Wednesday. He predicts a rather “modest year” in regards to funding new programs but expects there will be money for public health. 

“The critical focus will be centered on public health and making sure we are able to move on from this pandemic,” Alexander said. 

Protecting businesses from COVID-19-related lawsuits

Lawmakers also appear eager to tackle business liability issues related to the health crisis. When the House Civil Justice and Property Rights Subcommittee meets, it’s expected to consider a bill (HB 7) that shields companies from coronavirus lawsuits. 

Another insurance issue on the agenda will be taken up Tuesday in the Senate’s Banking and Insurance Committee. It will receive a report about the condition of the property insurance market. Many companies have lost revenue each of the past four years. 

“Many of these companies have seen a 100% increase in litigation,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who sits on the committee. 

The Insurance Information Institute reports lawsuits against property insurers increased from 45,000 in 2018 to 150,000 in 2020, and the Insurance Journal observes that Florida is in crisis. 

“What is unique (is) that although they operate in many states, the growth in litigation is only in Florida,” Brandes said. 

He added that the flight of capital from the Florida market has led to an “unsustainable” increase in the number of homeowners seeking coverage from the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corporation. 

More: Florida lawmakers file COVID-19 business protections for upcoming session

Scott Rivkees returns

On Thursday, state Surgeon General and Health Department Secretary Scott Rivkees will make a presentation to the Select Committee on Pandemic Response.

Rivkees largely has been out of public view in the past few months, even as the virus raged through the state. 

The committee also will engage in a panel discussion about the impact on hospitals throughout the state.

For social distancing reasons, those wanting to speak to the committee have to do so remotely, from a room in the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, two blocks west of the Capitol. 

More: Rick Scott to Surgeon General Scott Rivkees: Explain Florida COVID vaccine plan

Florida Legislature returns to Capitol this week in run-up to 2021 session 2

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US Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick has died from the protest

U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick has died after being injured when Trump supporters rioted and raided the Capitol building.

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Anti-rioting bill filed

Not on the first week’s committee agenda, but sure to create a lot of buzz around the Capitol is an anti-rioting legislation (HB 1, SB 436) that creates harsher penalties for people involved in “riots” and “violent” protests.

The measure was filed Wednesday night, coincidentally after Trump loyalists stormed the U.S. Capitol in an insurrection that now has cost five lives, including a police officer.

The identical bills are a rewrite of a proposal rolled out in the summer by Gov. Ron DeSantis as Black Lives Matter protests were happening in Florida and across the country. 

More: Florida legislative leaders release anti-riot bills this week

The bills would create a host of new crimes, crack down on protests and make it difficult for local governments to cut law enforcement budgets.  

Critics say it is politically motivated: “There has never been a time in American history where the law has been applied equally,” Alexander said. 

The bills have yet to be assigned to committees, but they most likely will have to clear the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Brandes, who questions the bill’s purpose. 

“Law enforcement I have spoken to in my community are kind of scratching their heads about why this is needed,” said Brandes, an Iraq War veteran who has spent much of his career on criminal justice issues. “They believe they have the tools that are necessary today, and some think it could make matters worse.”

How to watch 

  • Committee meetings begin Monday at 1 p.m. Senate chairs and vice chairs convene for procedural discussions in the Knott Building.
  • Meetings will be televised by The Florida Channel and also can be watched online at thefloridachannel.org

James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jcall@tallahassee.com. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee

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