TALLAHASSEE, Fla.— Florida’s two-month annual legislative session kicked off Tuesday, but thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the day-to-day operations will look a lot different in the capital city.
What You Need To Know
- The Florida Legislature started its 2021 session Tuesday
- The Florida Capitol will be closed off to most people because of the COVID pandemic
- The Democrats are expected to oppose many GOP proposals, but some compromise is possible
- FULL TEXT: Read Governor's State of State address
One exception was the visit from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who delivered his State of the State address for 2021 on Tuesday.
DeSantis, a staunch opponent to lockdowns and business restrictions, said Florida is in much better shape than other states because it is open for business.
“While so many other states kept locking people down over these many months, Florida lifted people up,” DeSantis said. “Florida’s schools are open –- and we are one of only a handful of states in which every parent has a right to send their child to school in-person. All Floridians have a right to earn a living -– and our citizens are employed at higher rates than those in the nation as a whole. Every job is essential.”
In the early months of the pandemic, DeSantis shut down many businesses and set capacity limits at restaurants and other stores. But he later abandoned those policies and said Florida will never go on lockdown again.
He credits that decision for Florida being in a better financial situation than forecasters predicted last year.
“Economic lockdowns are a luxury of the largely affluent Zoom class. Many Floridians can't do their jobs over a computer, they need to show up,” DeSantis said. “Throughout this entire pandemic, Florida has not touched one red cent from our rainy day fund. So, the bottom line is this: By saving Florida’s economy our budget outlook is much more positive.”
This year's legislative session will be held largely behind closed doors, open only to lawmakers, staffers, and reporters who have undergone a weekly COVID test.
DeSantis said the state will still be able boost education spending and and continue efforts to restore the Everglades and focus on other environmental priorities. That includes creating the Resilient Florida program under the Department of Environmental Protection, which will spend $1 billion on projects to help communities prepare for sea level rise and strong storms.
DeSantis did discuss legislative priorities, including a so-called anti-riot bill that would enhance penalties for crimes committed during a violent protest, not allow people arrested during such a demonstration to be released from jail before a first court appearance and create new felonies for organizing or participating in a violent demonstration.
DeSantis also wants to rein in the power of Big Tech companies. He criticized them from profiting off of personal information and taking sides in elections.
And while DeSantis boasted that Florida ran a transparent and efficient presidential election, he still wants changes to the election system, including the banning of people turning in ballots at drop boxes for someone other than a family member.
Democrats, who are in the minority of both chambers of the Florida Legislature, are not entirely happy with DeSantis's proposed budget, and even less enthused with some of his legislative priorities.
Democrats criticized him for not discussing the state's problematic unemployment system in the address, which DeSantis called a jalopy earlier this year as thousands of Floridians struggled to navigate through it when unemployment rose.
“I was very disappointed to not see any type of conversation around the unemployment system, around the eviction crisis. I felt like the governor was really using this to launch his campaign, versus actually address the real life problems that people are facing,” said State Rep. Anna Eskamani, (D-Orlando).
Reporters also approached Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried for a response. She is said to be considering a run for governor in 2022.
She made clear Tuesday she has not filed to run, but she acknowledged she is looking into it.
"It’s become clear every single day that the governor needs to be replaced, and as the only state elected Democrat a lot of people have come to mean and have asked me to run," she said.
Democrats also are expected to oppose DeSantis’s proposals to crack down on Big Tech and protest movements as “political theater.”
Lawmakers need to focus more on issues like fixing Florida’s unemployment system, according to Evan Jenne (D-District 99), co-leader of the House Democratic caucus.
“Forget about, you know, raising the bar. There isn't even a bar,” Jenne said. “The bar's been buried 6 feet deep by the Rick Scott administration when they created this system, and every bit of it was intentional. So, we do need to have some much-needed changes go into play.”
However, there also is potential for compromise.
If the U.S. Congress passes a new federal COVID relief package, that could make it possible to pay for the governor’s noncontroversial priorities, including more spending on the environment and teachers.
DeSantis is proposing spending $1 billion over the next five years on combating the effects of sea-level rise. He also has proposed spending $50 million more on his teacher pay raise package approved last year.