New Florida Legislature leaders resist special session, stay with 2021 schedule

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The Florida Legislature will not address any of the pressing pandemic-related issues facing the state until 2021 session committee meetings begin in January, meaning Gov. Ron DeSantis will remain unilaterally in control of state affairs through the year.

A one-day legislative session is required by the Florida Constitution to be staged on the 14th day following each general election for “the exclusive purpose of organization and selection of officers.” That Tuesday session is expected to last two hours.

Incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, T-Trilby, are expected to outline aspirational goals for the next two years and lay out their agenda for the 60-day 2021 legislative session that begins March 2.

Democrats have called for a special session to address the state’s unemployment system that collapsed in March when overwhelmed by applicants and to raise the state’s $275 weekly unemployment payout, the lowest in the nation.

Democrats, and some Republicans, have requested a special session to analyze how DeSantis has spent $4.6 billion in nearly $5.9 billion in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act money the state received in March.

Some Republicans have also called for a special session to adopt COVID-19 liability protections for businesses.

Out-going House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and DeSantis resisted the summer appeals for special sessions, although the governor suggested lawmakers call a special session to adopt his proposed “Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” which he touted as the “strongest pro-law enforcement, anti-rioting, anti-looting legislation anywhere in the country.”

While Sprowls and Simpson are expected to incorporate DeSantis’ “anti-mob” bill and COVID-19 liability protections for businesses in their 2021 legislative priorities, both appear comfortable with waiting until next year to address them.

After flipping five House seats and one Senate seat in the Nov. 3 elections, Republicans head into the 2021 session with a 78-42 House advantage and 24-16 Senate majority, meaning there is little political urgency to convene a special session.

Neither Sprowls or Simpson have announced any variation in the legislative schedule. After Tuesday’s one-day organizational session and December’s “Legislator University,” the next item on the agenda is committee meetings beginning in January.

After reporting 10,105 new coronavirus cases – the highest single-day count since late July – and 29 more resident deaths on Sunday, the Florida Department of Health (DOH) reported 4,531 new cases on Monday.

As of Monday, more than 890,000 Florida residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic and more than 17,000 have died with the disease since March.

The sustained outbreak, which has spurred calls from local governments across the state for DeSantis to restore their capacity to issue enforceable mitigation measures, has prompted the installation of a range of protocols designed to minimize the spread of infection among legislators Tuesday in Tallahassee.

The measures include COVID-19 testing, encouraging the use of face masks and limiting the number of people in the House and Senate chambers with little of the usual organization session pomp and circumstance.

Sprowls fostered some controversy last week when he issued a memo unveiling changes to House rules that streamline structured debate times and ban “frivolous” amendments.

“Given the amount of work that must be accomplished during the Regular Session, we must ensure that we make the best use of our schedule,” the memo states. “We’ve added language that frivolous amendments – those that do not accomplish a technical or substantive purpose – are out of order.”

Several Democrats said Sprowls’ rules will essentially prohibit them from filing any proposed amendment to any bill.

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