PHOTO VIA MIAMI-DADE FIRE RESCUE
Gov. Ron DeSantis continued this week to sign into law some of the measures Florida’s Republican-led Legislature passed this session, but thousands of bills died in Tallahassee and never made it to the governor, including some on notable issues.
In the House and Senate, lawmakers proposed 3,685 pieces of legislation, but only about 285 passed in both chambers, slightly higher than the number since at least 2016, according to legislative records.
Lawmakers passed a $112 billion state budget, as the session ended after votes on controversial legislation aimed at cultural issues unsettled between conservatives and progressives.
DeSantis signed a bill Thursday banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Other new Florida laws ban instruction or conversations about sexual orientation or gender identity in some elementary grades, and allow parents to sue public schools if students were made to feel uncomfortable over lessons about historical events because of their sex or race.
Here’s a partial list of what lawmakers didn’t do during their 60 days of work.
Lawmakers didn’t tackle reforms over property insurance for homeowners, who have seen premiums surge ahead of hurricane season. Some insurance companies have pulled out of Florida, putting upward pressure on prices. Some policies have doubled in cost.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and other lawmakers have formally asked that the Legislature consider the subject when it reconvenes next week for a special session to consider new congressional maps for Florida. Nothing has been set to happen yet.
Months after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium building in June killed 98 people in South Florida, lawmakers couldn’t agree on any new laws requiring mandatory inspections of such buildings – or how homeowners could be compelled to pay for necessary repairs – to prevent another disaster.
One bill died when the sponsors of the respective Senate and House bills, Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Orange Park, and Rep. Daniel Perez, R-Miami-Dade, could not agree on terms..
That bill would have established mandatory building inspections for all multi-family residential buildings three or more stories in height. The inspections would be performed once the building reaches 30 years old and then every 10 years. For buildings within three miles of the coast, the milestone inspection would be performed once the building reaches 20 years and then every seven years.
The bill also tried to compel building associations to establish reserves to fund critical maintenance. Negotiations between the bill sponsors broke down when they couldn’t come to agreement over when reserves needed to be established for critical structural repairs.
DeSantis said this week that if lawmakers were able to reach agreement, he would include the bill in the upcoming special legislative session.
“If they can do it, they can do it absolutely, but they have to agree on something,” DeSantis said. “The minute they tell me that that is something they can get across, we can add it absolutely.”
Also this week, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., urged DeSantis to get involved to help get the bill passed.
“I ask the governor and state lawmakers to find common ground to stop the next Surfside tragedy from ever happening,” Wasserman Schultz said. “We owe that much to the victims.”
Bills aimed at fast-tracking the legalization of recreational marijuana died. Democrats withdrew a doomed bill that would have laid the groundwork for how legal recreational marijuana could work in Florida. It would have mimicked tobacco usage legislation already in place.
“Just a really constant pattern of demonizing cannabis usage when a majority of Floridians don't share that sentiment,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. She said she intended to file the bill again next year, if she wins re-election in November. Eskamani said she hopes the next wave of House leadership is more open to legalized marijuana in Florida.
A bill by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who is also chairman of the Florida Republican Party, would have regulated a different drug, kratom, a medicinal plant with opioid properties. Gruters withdrew the bill after it passed two committees unanimously but then stalled. The Florida Kratom Consumer Protection Act was intended to protect people’s rights to consume the drug safely in Florida, Gruters said.
Sarasota County has banned possession of kratom, citing the decision by the U.S. Army and Navy to ban the drug. Their findings said the drug has addictive properties and causes symptoms like dry mouth, insomnia, anorexia, hallucinations and confusion.
Gruters said the drug is good overall and wants to prevent manufacturers from mixing the drug with harmful substances. The drug can be found in many smoke shops around the U.S. and is typically consumed in tea.
Research on the drug is limited, but researchers are looking into its potential to help relieve chronic pain and withdrawal effects from other substances, mainly opioids. Recent studies showed that almost 95% of people who took kratom while on another drug stopped using the other drug, said Oliver Grundmann, a clinical professor at the University of Florida College of Pharmacy studying the drug.
One area of concern for researchers is the drug’s post-harvest process, said Christopher McCurdy, a UF medicinal chemistry professor and director of the UF Translational Drug Development Core.
A compound that appears to be generated after leaves are harvested needs to be eliminated from the market for safe use, and the Florida Kratom Consumer Protection Act would have helped do that, he said.
A bill by Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, would have expanded the types of drugs covered under Florida’s laws against driving under the influence. She withdrew the bill after failing to receive support from some lawmakers and criminal defense legal experts.
It would have closed what Berman called a gap in Florida’s impaired driving laws by expanding the definition of “controlled substances.” The new definition would include prescription, over-the-counter and psychoactive or designer drugs that could affect drivers behind the wheel. Currently, drivers who are pulled over under the influence of such drugs can be charged with reckless driving, not driving under the influence, which carries tougher penalties.
“We want people who are actually under the influence and who shouldn’t be driving to be actually charged with driving under the influence,“ Berman said.
Critics feared the bill could cause unwarranted DUI arrests. Aaron Wayt, a DUI lawyer in Tallahassee and legislative chairman for the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said drinking an excessive amount of alcohol is not the same as taking a prescription medicine with a drowsiness side effect, and the two shouldn’t be punished the same way. One suggested change to the bill would have exempted people with a doctor’s prescription, Wayt said.
Digital license plates
A digital driver’s license pilot program is already underway in Florida, but the Legislature decided not to go ahead with a similar program for modernizing license plates.
A bill by Rep. Nicholas X. Duran, D-Miami, would have directed the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to conduct a pilot program testing out digital plates to replace metal ones. It passed two committees unanimously then was withdrawn when it appeared headed nowhere.
During legislative debate over the bill, Durant said it was important that the digital plates – which could be used to track a driver’s movements – keep such information private. The plates could also be used to pay tolls, display emergency alerts, such as those for missing people, or warn police that the car had been stolen.
Durant’s bill would have given Florida six months to plan and carry out the test program. Another option would have limited testing to government-owned vehicles. The cost of the plates could vary, depending on whether drivers were charged for their wireless connectivity. In other states, they cost several hundred dollars.
‘Free kill’ law
For a second consecutive year, lawmakers did not change a controversial Florida statute derided by critics as its “free kill” law, which prevents families from filing medical malpractice lawsuits against doctors or hospitals when victims are adults.
To keep malpractice costs low, lawmakers in 1990 prevented anyone over 25 from suing doctors for pain and loss judgments in malpractice lawsuits over the death of a parent if the parent were divorced or unmarried. The law permitted claims by surviving spouses or minor children. Critics said it eliminated a major consequence – big cash payouts to surviving family members – after botched surgeries or medical treatments.
The law also similarly prevented parents of unmarried or childless adult children from suing for those judgments. Lawmakers said they were trying to hold down medical malpractice insurance rates and discourage doctors from moving their practices to other states with friendlier business climates.
A bill by Sen. Ana Maria Rodgriguez, R-Doral, would have allowed parents of their adult children to win pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. It was postponed during the last few judiciary committee meetings, effectively killing its chances.
A House version of the bill, by Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, cleared the House committees but died waiting for the Senate to take action. Advocates for changing the law said they planned to try again next year.
Plane tax exemption
An effort to repeal the sales tax on sales and leases of private planes – including expensive jets popular among CEOs, celebrities and athletes – failed. Lawmakers said the tax break would have encouraged plane manufacturers to come to or stay in Florida and created more jobs.
Sen.Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, who filed one of the bills, said the measure would have cost local governments $6.9 million to $7.5 million in lost taxes. He said some other states were offering similar tax cuts. New York, Delaware, North Carolina and South Carolina are among states that have little or no sales tax on aircraft sales.
“We're at fear of losing some of the manufacturers that we currently have here," Hutson said.
Planes sold, delivered, used or stored in Florida are subject to a 6% sale and use tax.
Previous efforts to repeal the sales tax on aircraft sales had failed because the state couldn’t afford to lose those tax revenues, said Rep Toby Overdorf, R-Stuart, who filed the House version of the bill.
Free menstrual products in schools
Democrats withdrew a bill that would have required school districts to offer free menstrual products to students in school nurses’ offices or other school facilities, after it wasn’t making headway.
Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D- Boca Raton, and Rep. Michael Grieco, D-North Bay Village, sponsored the Learning with Dignity Act. Skidmore said these products are a necessity and should be viewed as equivalent to toilet paper or paper towels.
Skidmore said she was concerned about girls who have to leave class because they don’t have access to these products, or girls who can’t afford them.
About 62% of the 2.8 million public school students qualified financially for free and reduced lunch, according to figures from the Florida Department of Education.
“How do we keep our high expectations of students when we, as the adults in the room, don't make sure they have what they need to be there and just show up?” Skidmore asked.
There isn’t a uniform agreement across Florida school districts how menstrual products should be distributed. Rep. Stan McClain, R-Ocala, chairman of the secondary education subcommittee where the bill died, told Skidmore he wanted more details about how each county deals with such distributions, she said.
In Tallahassee, the Leon County School District has installed 30 dispensers for menstrual products in eight middle schools and six high school girls’ bathrooms at a cost of $14,000, said spokeswoman Heather Thomas. The products are funded by a partnership with the Foundation for Leon County Schools and donations from the community.
California, New York, Illinois, New Hampshire, Virginia and other states have either agreed to offer free menstrual products in schools or are considering similar measures.
Lawmakers considered keeping details secret about the deaths of children who die in domestic violence cases, in deference to the mother of two young boys murdered last summer by their father. Bills to block release of autopsy reports in such cases were making progress in the House and Senate, until the Senate version stalled and was withdrawn.
The effort was one of 36 bills to limit government records or information that must be disclosed under Florida’s public records law. In the end, lawmakers passed six of them, including a law protecting the identities of victims of sexual harrassment.
Under Florida law, autopsies are considered public records, which can be released to anyone who requests a copy. These new autopsy measures would have blocked public access to autopsies of anyone under the age of 18 who were killed in domestic violence.
Rex Reinhart, 14, and his brother, Brody, 11, were fatally shot by their father, Paul Reinhart, at the family’s vacation home in Dixie County before Paul set the home on fire and killed himself. His estranged wife, Minde Reinhart, told lawmakers she opposed public release of her sons’ autopsy reports, which showed they had been shot. During a frantic search while the boys were missing, deputies were operating under information that Reinhart did not own any guns.
Rep. Charles ”Chuck” Clemons, R-Jonesville, said he will submit the bill again next year.
“I don’t think any friends of young students should have to be able to read stuff like that off of the internet, and have lasting memories or repercussions of the things they have read in the autopsy reports,” Clemons said. “I don’t think it’s reasonable.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Steven Walker, Alex Lugo, Julia Cooper, Daniella Sevares, Abigail Hasebroock and Jack Prator contributed to this reporting. Wilder and Hernandez De La Cruz can be reached at [email protected]
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