Amid a lingering pandemic and unique protocols, it’s safe to say the 2021 Florida Legislative Session was one for the books – with big budgetary surprises, COVID-19 oddities, and red-hot button issues debated in the Capitol.
Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of this year’s session (and special session) winners and losers …
For the first time in Florida’s history, the Legislature passed a budget to spend more than $100 billion — a remarkable fact just one year after projections predicted economic ruin in the Sunshine State due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The record-breaking $101.5 billion balanced budget was made possible by the more than $6 billion in federal funds included in the American Rescue Act, better-than-expected revenue receipts, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, and renewed tourism. The revenue from the newly approved gaming compact will also help buoy state revenues for years to come. The budget includes good news for many: raises and bonuses for state employees (including teachers and first responders), significant spending on state infrastructure, additional funding for economic development and workforce support initiatives, and no cuts to the hospital Medicaid base rate.
Online Sales Tax
SB 50, the Park Randall ‘Randy’ Miller Act, was signed into law, which will require online retailers like Amazon.com to collect sales tax (6%). This measure simply expands the definition of sales tax to include online retailers who generate more than $100,000 in revenue in Florida per year, so shopping at physical stores is taxed at the same rate as shopping online. Revenue generated by this new tax will go toward replenishing the state’s Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund (UCTF). Once the UCTF is restored to pre-pandemic levels, the online sales tax will offset lower revenues from previous sales tax rate cuts on commercial leases.
The new state budget maintains current funding levels for hospitals’ Medicaid base rates and other health care programs. Lawmakers also added $240 million to Medicaid in order to cover new mothers until one year after giving birth, previously capped at 60 days after birth. For context, Medicaid pays for labor and delivery services for almost half of all babies born in Florida. The state will also spend $131 million on opioid addiction outreach and treatment programs, and $95 million to shrink the 20,000-person waiting list for at-home care through a Medicaid program for the developmentally disabled. Aside from healthcare funding, Governor DeSantis signed SB 2006, which bans vaccine passports in the state and goes into effect on July 1.
Florida’s COVID-19 liability protection bill offers legal protections for businesses, governments, and health care providers who followed government-issued health standards to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The bill sets lawsuit requirements, such as a plaintiff would have to prove the defendant deliberately ignored guidelines. If the court determines that the defendant made an effort to follow guidelines, they are immune from civil liability. The law, which went into effect on April 5, 2021, applies retroactively to the beginning of the pandemic, but includes a statute of limitations that claims must be filed within one year from the date of injury.
After a fierce debate, data privacy legislation failed in the final hours of the 2021 legislative session. This bill would have given consumers the right to know and control how their personal data is collected, used, stored, shared, bought, and sold. Opponents of the bill, which included some of the state’s largest companies and their lobbyists, argued that it would place a massive regulatory burden on businesses.
During the final week of the session, the Florida House and Senate agreed to spend $100 million to clean up the former phosphate plant at Piney Point in Manatee County and $300 million on the Florida Forever program to conserve the state’s natural and cultural heritage. Lawmakers also agreed to put $500 million into the Resilient Florida Trust Fund, an infrastructure program that addresses sea-level rise and flooding.
SB 90 will limit the number of absentee ballots a person may return on behalf of others, mandate early voting ballot drop-boxes be available at election supervisors’ offices and early voting sites, and increase voter ID requirements when requesting an absentee ballot.
Anti-Riot and Police Reform
HB 1, signed this spring, will establish additional protections for officers and increase penalties for looting and violence during mass demonstrations. The Legislature also passed a bipartisan police reform bill (HB 7051) that, among other things, will prohibit police from arresting young children (<7 years old), mandate data collection during use of force incidents, enhance the transparency of officers’ disciplinary histories, and require officers to interfere if a fellow officer uses excessive force.
This session resulted in significant wins for Florida’s educators and students with the passing of HB 419, which will make the voluntary pre-kindergarten program more accountable and proactive for getting children ready for kindergarten. The state also allocated hefty funding for education, including $550 million to raise teachers’ salaries to at least $47,500, a $38 per-student increase in K-12 state funding, $464 million for school choice programs, $120 million for school mental health programs, and $216 million for one-time $1,000 bonuses for teachers and principals. The Florida Department of Education will also develop detailed plans for spending $6.8 billion in additional federal funds, designated for Florida as part of the American Rescue Plan.