Florida legislative leaders look to get ‘across finish line’
House and Senate leaders said Wednesday the goal of the upcoming legislative session is to get priorities of Gov. Ron DeSantis “across the finish line,” such as limiting lawsuits, expanding school choice and preventing “woke” investing.
Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner described “unprecedented cooperation” between the governor and leaders of the Republican-dominated Legislature as they spoke at the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s annual “Legislative Fly-in” at the Augustus B. Turnbull III Conference Center at Florida State University.
“The bills that he is asking us to send through the Legislature are the things that we've been talking about for years and haven't had the courage to do. He has,” Passidomo, R-Naples, said. “We're going to get his agenda across the finish line.”
Renner said he anticipates a session filled with “big, big issues.” The scheduled 60-day session will start March 7.
“Some you will love. Some you may hate,” Renner, R-Palm Coast, said. “But these are things that I think will move Florida forward and put us in a really great place and make people's lives better tomorrow than they are today.”
Among the issues that Renner cited were a measure to help shield businesses and insurance companies from costly lawsuits.
City Furniture CEO and owner Keith Koenig — in introducing Renner at the chamber event — called tackling lawsuit abuse “number one on our list.”
House Republicans last week filed a wide-ranging bill (HB 837) to try to curb lawsuits. The bill emerged a day after DeSantis endorsed ideas such as eliminating what are known as “one-way attorney fees” across all lines of insurance. One-way attorney fees require insurers to pay the attorney fees of plaintiffs who successfully file lawsuits.
Lawmakers during a December special session eliminated one-way attorney fees to try to help financially struggling property insurers. But insurance lobbyists also have been calling for eliminating one-way fees in cases involving such things as auto-accident claims.
Renner said the intent of the new legislation will be to eliminate “garbage lawsuits,” a move he said “will lower our costs in auto insurance and property insurance.”
Plaintiffs’ attorneys and outnumbered Democratic lawmakers likely will fight the proposal, at least in part arguing that limiting lawsuits and legal fees unfairly affects injured people.
The House and Senate also have started moving forward on proposals to make every Florida student eligible for state-backed vouchers that could be used for private-school tuition and various other educational expenses (HB 1 and SB 202).
RELATED: A universal voucher bill gets Senate support as opponents laud its public school changes
“There's many, many great public schools and great public school teachers out there, but we do want competition,” Renner said. “School choice, which was begun by (former Gov.) Jeb Bush 25 years ago, has made our public schools a lot better. … But that's not good enough. We still have about half of our students who don't make it on grade level in reading by the third grade.”
In addition to expanding voucher eligibility, the proposals would essentially create what are known as education savings accounts, or ESA’s. The flexible-spending accounts could be used for purchases such as tutoring services, instructional materials and contracted services provided by public schools.
Lawmakers also are proposing allowing families of home-schooled students to receive vouchers.
Critics of the legislation have expressed concerns about a potential erosion of traditional public schools.
Another DeSantis-backed bill (HB 3) seeks to block government investment decisions involving “environmental, social and governance” standards, known as ESG.
Republican leaders in Florida and other states have targeted ESG for taking into account issues such as climate change, racial inequality and supply-chain labor standards.
“What I take the greatest issue with, it becomes ultimately a hijacking of the democratic process,” Renner said. “Issues that are significant, they belong in the political process, are instead put forward by martini millionaires.”
The bill would require investment decisions by state and local governments to be made “solely on pecuniary factors” while also prohibiting consideration of “social, political or ideological interests” in government contracting.
Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, a massive asset-management firm, said in a letter last year to corporate executives that companies using the standards are "performing better than their peers.