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Florida Lawmakers Confront 'Unprecedented' Task Of Budgeting During A Global Pandemic

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Scott Keeler
/
Tampa Bay Times
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, right, addresses a joint session of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday, January 14, 2020.

On the last day of Florida’s annual legislative session, state lawmakers normally pass the budget for the next fiscal year and then adjourn “sine die” — which means, it’s over until next time.

Then dozens of people crowd into the rotunda between the House and Senate chambers in the Capitol building in Tallahassee, waiting to see the ceremonial ending: Each house’s sergeant at arms drops a handkerchief to the floor at the same time. It’s a tradition that goes back nearly a century.

But the coronavirus has discarded tradition. It has obliterated ceremony, halted normal. This year, there will be no hanky drop. [UPDATE: The hanky drop happened, after all, despite repeated statements from House leadership that it wouldn't. Very few people were there to see it.]

Lawmakers teed up the state budget for final approval last week and then returned to their homes throughout the state over the weekend. Now, many of them are going back for the vote Thursday, despite pushback from some who argue legislative leaders’ decision not to suspend session could lead to further spread of the coronavirus that has already killed eight people in Florida.

The Republican leaders’ push to finish the budget this week comes as President Donald Trump has advised Americans to avoid groups of 10 people or more, and as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned not to gather more than 50 people in the same place.

The Legislature has 160 members.

“We are sending the wrong message,” said Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from West Park. “We're putting ourselves at risk by doing this.”

Jones’ previously scheduled flight to Tallahassee was canceled, but he decided to drive there to attend the final day of session, despite his concerns. He had hoped the Legislature would cancel the end of session and reconvene in June in order to pass a budget before the July 1 start of next fiscal year.

Leaders felt passing the budget was an urgent priority, though: The spending plan lawmakers are slated to approve Thursday includes $25 million that could be used immediately to combat the coronavirus, and it puts another $300 million in reserves to support the state’s response as the crisis continues.

“It is critical that we return to Tallahassee as soon as possible to vote on the budget and send it to the Governor,” Senate President Bill Galvano, a Republican from Bradenton, said in a statement.

Jones said he understands the need to pass the budget, but he wishes legislative leaders had not sent members home to wait out the required 72-hour "cooling off period" between when the budget is printed and lawmakers can take a final vote.

"What we should have done is stay in Tallahassee, allow the cooling period to go by, and then vote on the budget after that cooling period," he said. "But now we have allowed individuals to go home with the potential of being affected ... and bringing it back to Tallahassee.

"I do understand that certain precautionary things have been put into place," he said, "but that's just not enough."

        View this post on Instagram                   The legislature did not complete our ONE constitutional duty, and that’s to pass a balanced budget. So, members have to travel to vote on the budget tomorrow at 7pm. Rather than getting on a plane, I chose to drive.... BUT, I’m not alone! My nephews wanted to roll. #TallahasseeRoadTrip A post shared by Shevrin Jones (@shevrinjones) on Mar 18, 2020 at 4:02pm PDT

As Jones mentioned, the House and Senate have announced a series of precautionary measures to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus.

In the House, Rep. Cary Pigman, a central Florida Republican who is also a medical doctor, will oversee a team of three nurse practitioners in conducting health screenings for members. The screenings will include a brief series of questions and temperature checks using a no-touch thermometer.

The House gallery will be closed to the public. Leaders encouraged members to travel to Tallahassee by car instead of by plane and to leave staff at home. Any House member who is exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus disease COVID-19 — such as a fever, a dry cough or difficulty breathing — will be given an excused absence. Members who are considered to be especially at-risk, including older adults and people with underlying conditions like heart disease or diabetes, will also be excused if they choose not to attend.

The House needs a simple majority of 61 members for a quorum. Half-plus-one of those in attendance must vote yes for the budget to pass.

Leaders of the House Republican majority surveyed their members and found 70 of 73 expected to attend. Rep. Mike Caruso, who represents part of Palm Beach County, will not be there, nor will Reps. Mike Beltran of the Tampa Bay area and Jennifer Sullivan of Central Florida. A spokesman for the House would not provide their reasons for not attending but stressed they have not tested positive for the coronavirus.

“The Florida House has a constitutional obligation to vote on the budget,” House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Republican from Miami Lakes, said in a statement. “We are confident we can conduct a budget debate and vote safely.”

On the Senate side, leaders are encouraging members to submit questions and statements on the budget in writing and watch the proceedings on The Florida Channel from their Capitol offices, entering the chamber only to record their presence and cast their votes. Staff members based outside of Tallahassee will not be allowed to attend.

Similarly, those with symptoms or underlying conditions will be excused. Their votes will be recorded for the record but will not affect the final tallies on the budget bills.

The Senate expects to have a quorum of at least 21 members.

Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat representing parts of Miami-Dade County, will not be one of them.

“I have an elderly parent that I am responsible for taking care of who cannot leave the premises for obvious reasons,” she said.

Taddeo wrote a letter to Senate President Galvano last week, asking for him to consider postponing the budget vote until June or allowing senators to record their votes electronically from home.

“I believe that it would be irresponsible and perhaps dangerous for Senators to have to return to Tallahassee … while the risk of infection is so high,” she wrote in the March 13 letter.

A local government official in the capital city expressed similar concerns. Tallahassee city commissioner Jeremy Matlow asked legislative leaders to consider canceling Thursday’s session.

“It would be reckless to the public health of Tallahassee and Florida residents in general for the Legislature to continue with their plans to reconvene at the Capitol this week,” he wrote to Galvano and Oliva on Wednesday.

“As we all navigate these uncharted waters, I request that you respect the health risks posed to Tallahassee by such a gathering," Matlow wrote, "and seek to reschedule or provide for an alternative platform to conduct business that does not include travelers from around the state converging on our city.”

When first asked about the possibility of allowing lawmakers to take a remote vote on the budget, Galvano responded that it wasn’t necessary.

“I don’t think there’s a need to vote remotely or electronically,” he told reporters at the Capitol last Friday. “When we come back to vote on the budget, I’ve suggested that it be just the members that come back, that we don’t need to bring all the staffs back, and we’ll do our business. But, you know, at some point, life still has to go on.”

During a separate interview on Friday, a reporter asked Oliva if the House would vote on the budget via Skype and then said he was kidding. Oliva laughed.

As stronger guidance on social distancing came down from federal officials over the weekend, and state leaders took dramatic steps such as closing public schools, legislative leaders gave more serious consideration to the idea of holding a remote vote. They determined it was too risky.

They argue the Florida Constitution doesn’t allow for voting on the budget electronically, and as a result, lawsuits could ensnare crucial funding needed for the coronavirus response.

“Florida’s Constitution and laws do not contemplate the Legislature conducting votes remotely,” Galvano said in a statement. “This public health emergency certainly provides reason to explore changes to our laws that may allow such an option in the future; however, as it relates to this vote, in the midst of a pandemic, I am not willing to risk a legal challenge that could prevent our budget from being promptly enacted.”

Taddeo said she sees the issue from both sides.

“If … we do anything different that could be questionable, we could end up in a lawsuit over the vote of the budget,” Taddeo said. “Nothing in our Constitution really speaks about being able to vote electronically. So that's part of the predicament we're in.”

The fact that a relatively small number of lawmakers might actually vote on the budget, and that the House is barring the public from watching in person, is not ideal from an open government perspective. But this isn’t an ideal scenario, said Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.

“It’s really an unprecedented situation. In my 44 years of observing the Legislature, I've never seen anything like this,” Wilcox said. “I think legislative leaders are acting in good faith to make sure no one gets sick.”

Also, the public would not have been able to weigh in during the final budget debate anyway, coronavirus or not. People are allowed to give testimony during committee meetings throughout the session, but they’re not able to speak while lawmakers are voting on bills on the floor. There are no amendments allowed at this point in the legislative process, either.

“It's essentially a done deal, an up-or-down vote,” Wilcox said.

Any other year, Wilcox would be at the Capitol to experience the end of the legislative session.

This time, he’s staying home.

UPDATED: This story was updated 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 19.