The time is nigh for Florida lawmakers to return to Tallahassee for the annual legislative session, and state lawmakers have wasted no time outlining their top priorities headed into 2018.
Here are some of the top issues and bills lawmakers will throw their weight behind in 2018:
Technically speaking, the state’s budget is the only piece of legislation required to pass each year, but how Florida spends the money in its budget differs each year.
Gov. Rick Scott has his own ideas about how the state should spend its money -- in November, Scott unveiled an $87.4 billion budget plan, the largest since he took office in 2011.
Among Scott’s top priorities: a record $12 billion investment in the state’s education system, the “highest ever” in Florida history. The increase in state funding would be a jump of nearly 37 percent for Florida’s K-12 public schools since Scott first took office, with over $21.4 billion going towards Florida’s public schools. All in all, Scott’s funding numbers equate to around $7,500 per student, an increase of around $200 per student, a record for per-pupil spending.
Scott is also pitching a $220 million investment for Florida environmental programs.
Though Florida leaders have yet to outline their own specific budget proposals, revenue specialists have projected possible budget constraints in 2018 in part due to unexpected costs resulting from Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
The final budget numbers have yet to be determined.
Florida’s education system has long been a top priority for state lawmakers, and education issues were among the first to make headlines for proposals for the 2018 legislative session.
Some bills tackling education issues:
SB 4: Permanent Expansion of Bright Futures Scholarships (Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton)
SB 4, spearheaded by future Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, would expand the amount of financial aid and scholarship money Florida students could receive under the Bright Futures program, which began in 1997 and is expected to serve nearly 100,000 students this year.
Galvano’s proposal would secure full funding for the Academic Scholar award, the top tier of scholarships in the program. Receiving the top award for the scholarship requires students to have at least a 3.5 GPA as well as a score of 1290 on the SAT or a 29 on the ACT.
At least 41,000 students qualified for the top scholarship tier this year.
Funding would also be reinstated for the Bright Futures Medallion Scholar award, which awards 75 percent of tuition and fees for the fall and spring semesters.
The bill has already seen widespread support and is headed to the Senate floor.
HB 1: “Hope Scholarship” for Victims of Bullying (Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples)
Students who are victims of bullying, violence or abuse could get a shot at attending a new school as part of a scholarship program pushed by Florida House GOP members during this year’s upcoming legislative session.
Dubbed the “Hope Scholarship,” the new program would give funding to Florida students reporting incidents of violence, allowing them to transfer to public or private schools.
The bill has already been heralded as a top priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who has thrown his weight behind the measure.
SB 370: Florida Forever Funding (Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island)
Sen. Bradley was tapped to take over as Senate Budget Chief in November, and Bradley is prepared to use his powerful position to require extra funding -- to the tune of $100 million -- for the state’s “Florida Forever” program.
Florida Forever buys land across the state for conservation purposes and has bought more than 751,000 acres of land with a little over $2.98 billion since the program’s inception in 2001.
Bradley’s bill has already gathered support from groups like the Florida Conservation Voters
“Florida voters have made it clear they want more funding for parks, wildlife corridors, and environmentally important natural areas like wetlands. I hope that SB 370 is the first sign of the Senate’s renewed commitment to continuing Florida’s legacy of acquiring critical natural areas before they are lost forever,” said Florida Conservation Voters Executive Director Aliki Moncrief.
HB 21: Opioid Epidemic (Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton and Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers)
HB 21, sponsored by Rep. Jim Boyd in the House and Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto in the Senate, would limit opioid prescriptions in Florida to a three-day supply. The limit would apply to patients suffering acute pain rather than chronic pain, which is governed under different standards.
The bill is largely in line with a proposal Gov. Rick Scott made in September to combat the opioid crisis in Florida, on top of a $50 million investment in his 2018 budget.
“I know how painful substance abuse is for a family and no family in our state should experience the anguish and heartbreak that opioid abuse brings,” Scott said. “We cannot be too cautious when it comes to helping families. Whether it’s recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Irma, fighting against the Zika virus or combatting the opioid epidemic – we will not stop providing Floridians every resource when they need it the most.”
Hurricane Irma Response/Nursing Homes
SB 284/372: Mandatory generator requirement bill (Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah)
Florida lawmakers have filed a series of bills in response to the untimely deaths of 13 elderly people in a Hollywood nursing home following Hurricane Irma.
Sen. Lauren Book is pitching a bill, SB 284, to require nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have generators to power up air conditioning should the facilities lose power. Generators would be required to have enough fuel for five days’ worth of power.
Nursing homes and ALFs would be kept under a close watch -- the bill would also require the Agency for Health Care Administration to conduct inspections every 15 months to make sure generators are working.
A similar bill, SB 372, has been filed by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, which would require generators and a mandatory fuel supply for four days at nursing homes and ALFs.
HB 655: ‘Granny Cam’ Legislation Prioritizing Power Restoration for Nursing Homes (Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, and Sen. Gary farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale)
The 2018 “Granny Cam” legislation would prioritize power restoration for certain medical facilities including nursing homes during times of crisis.
Public utility companies would also be required to inform facilities administering “essential” medical care if their services are scheduled to be interrupted at any time.
The bill would also establish an “undercover” system to watch for abuses and neglect in nursing home, a hot button issue since the Hollywood Hills story broke.
If the bill passes, the Office of the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman would keep a much closer eye on assisted living facilities, conducting unannounced quality-of-care investigations of health and long-term care facilities statewide.
The office could have employees show up for the review in uniform, or they could go undercover to investigate possible abuses and neglect at nursing homes.
Those found violating state laws could receive civil penalties anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 per occurrence.
HB 33: Texting While Driving (Reps. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, and Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton)
Under HB 33, texting and driving would become a primary offense, which means Floridians could get pulled over if they’re found typing on their phones behind the wheel.
Texting and driving is currently a secondary offense in Florida, which means drivers have to be pulled over for breaking the law in other ways -- like speeding or not wearing their seatbelts -- to be whacked for texting and driving.
If the bill becomes law, Florida would become the 41st state in the country to ban texting and driving. State legislators have tried to pass the measure for years, but without much success.
HB 9: Sanctuary Cities Ban (Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yahala)
HB 9, sponsored by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, would prohibit Florida communities from acting as “sanctuary cities” for undocumented immigrants. Law enforcement agencies and local government entities would also be prohibited from from adopting sanctuary policies.
If passed, local officials who refuse to comply with federal authorities could be removed from their jobs.
Speaker Corcoran has already shown strong support for the bill, which House leaders are pushing as a way to combat “dangerous” policies affecting Floridians in sanctuary cities.
“Sanctuary cities are a threat to the safety of our communities,” tweeted Corcoran on Tuesday. “On week one of session the Florida House will pass a bill that will enforce the rule of law.”
The 2018 legislative session begins Tuesday.