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BILL COTTERELL: A Capital Curmudgeon's predictions for the 2020 Florida legislative session

Bill Cotterell
Tallahasee Democrat Columnist
Walton Sun

Predicting what will happen in a legislative session is like choosing a World Series winner on the first day of spring training.

Since my first Florida legislative session in 1970, I’ve watched enough governors and lawmakers come and go, listened to enough historic debates, talked to enough political experts and studied the legislative process enough to know one thing with absolute confidence:

Your guess is as good as mine.

Florida Legislature: Getting ready for the big show

But predicting is what newspaper columnists do when a legislative session breaks out. Like the politicians themselves, I reserve the right to amend and extend these predictions, or to deny I ever made them.

Teachers. Gov. Ron DeSantis called this “the year of the teacher,” and he’s proposed raising the starting pay for educators to $47,500. The Democrats want more, particularly for long-serving teachers who don’t deserve to earn the same as one right out of college, and the Florida Education Association certainly illustrated strong public support for better funding of all public education with its mass march on the Capitol Monday. DeSantis is getting some push-back, but he’s riding high in the polls and there’s no question that teachers deserve not just more money, but better professional respect. Legislators will come up with serious money and probably extend raises to non-classroom professionals.

Guns. Everyone was surprised when a Senate committee passed a fairly mild bill, over the objections of the National Rifle Association, aimed at the so-called “gun show loophole” in firearms sales. SB7028 would not require background checks in person-to-person sales — about 20% of transactions — but would require sellers to check a buyer’s identification and ask questions about past felonies or other disqualification for gun ownership. One committee is a long way from becoming law, though, and if anything passes the NRA will take it to court.

GUEST EDITORIAL: Legislature, don’t usurp local control

Abortion. Speaking of going to court, in his “State of the State” speech, DeSantis put in a quick plug for legislation to require parental consent — not just notification — when minors seek abortion. It passed the House last year and the Senate seems likely go along this year. But the long game, in several states, is to get abortion back before the U.S. Supreme Court, where opponents hope new Trump appointees will someday recede from the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized the procedure.

Marijuana. Two “adult use” bills have been filed to let people over 21 possess 2.5 ounces of cannabis. This comes on the heels of a decision by pot-legalization supporters to abandon their petition campaign to put a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot, opting to try for 2022 instead. Legislators are unlikely to take such a bold step in an election year, when they don’t have to.

Immigration. DeSantis wants to make employers hiring immigrants use the E-Verify system for making sure they’re in the country legally. Ex-Gov. Rick Scott advocated the same thing but Republican legislators have never acted on it because agriculture interests don’t want it. They won’t do it this year, either.

ERA. Florida refused in the 1970s and early 1980s to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which has had a rebirth lately. The deadline set by Congress expired decades ago, but two states recently ignored that and approved the amendment forbidding sex discrimination. Virginia is expected to become the 38th state — putting ERA over the top — but ratification resolutions are pending in Florida, just in case. There’s no reason to think the Republican-run Legislature will approve the amendment, though.

Prisons. Nobody wants to look soft on crime in an election year especially. Looking tough but sensible is OK though. The state spends $2.7 billion housing 95,000 inmates and the system is in crisis — crumbling facilities, extreme guard turnover, horrible health care, assaults and gang activities. The pending budget proposes more than $100 million for guard retention plans and health care improvements. There’s also a move to reduce the requirement that inmates serve at least 85% of their time, maybe cutting that to 65%, and clearing out geriatric prisoners to ease crowding.

Sine die. Sometime in late February everything will blow up. House and Senate budget conferences will break down. No way they’re going to end this thing in 60 days, on March 14. Then rabbits get pulled out of hats, money materializes to grease budgetary hangups and everybody goes home to run for re-election.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Tallahassee Democrat Capitol reporter who writes a twice-weekly column. He can be reached at bcotterell@tallahassee.com.