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Florida Democrats Pitch COVID Recovery Plan Built By Freshman Representative

Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Pinellas, in a gray suit, raising his right hand and wearing a face mask.
Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Pinellas, in a gray suit, raising his right hand and wearing a face mask.

Florida Democrats rolled out a comprehensive package of COVID-19 protections Thursday. They would affect workers, parents, school children, business owners and the victims of the deadly virus.

House Democrats are pushing what they call meaningful COVID relief and a solid plan for the next pandemic. Their 69-page proposal is largely the work of a young freshman, Rep. Andrew Learned, a military officer and father of twins who runs a tutoring center near Tampa.

"There is something in this bill for all Floridians," Learned said.

Tucked in the bill is a major expansion of Florida's unemployment benefits, which are among the stingiest of any state. The current 12-week limit at $275 a week would expand to $500 weekly for 26 weeks. That idea may gain traction, as Senate President Wilton Simpson said this week the benefits are too low.

"We need to take a serious look at bringing that $275 up to something higher than that,” Simpson told reporters earlier this week.

Rep. Learned said the state should give emergency paid sick leave to people who quarantine or test positive. The bill creates a bridge loan for struggling small businesses, a variety of tax credits and a requirement that the state and local governments expand the use of remote technology to bring government closer to people.

"I know this is a lot, but that's because it has to be. There is a fierce urgency to this moment," Learned said, "and we're to deliver the COVID relief our state so badly needs in this moment."

House Bill 1617 has not yet been analyzed by legislative staffers so there's no price tag on how much it will cost. , but it's sure to be high. Democrats are also pushing expanded Medicaid eligibility for a wide variety of safety net programs in future emergencies, a cost that will also be very expensive. It comes as Republican leaders are tinkering with plans to reduce the state's spending on the healthcare program for low income Floridians, while trying to preserve federal matching funds.

House Democrats co-leader Evan Jenne said he would be happy if Republicans would steal parts of the legislation and claim them as their own. But in a Republican-dominated House that is very closely aligned with Governor Ron DeSantis, many of the plans are not likely to get a single hearing.

"I'm under no illusion that this bill would be fast tracked to the floor this session," Jenne said. "In fact, I would encourage my friends on the other side of the aisle to steal as much of this as possible and put it in some committee bill if necessary. We're trying to help the people of Florida. That is the only reason why we're doing this bill."

The bill also requires all teachers and school administrators to be given immediate access to vaccines. So far the state has lowered the age for vaccines to people 50 and over and those with special medical needs as stated by their physicians.

Another provision is surely dead on arrival among Republicans -- a statewide mask mandate for everyone age 2 and older.

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