Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) today marked the conclusion of the 2021 Legislative Session, joining Governor Ron DeSantis, House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) and other legislators for the traditional Sine Die Ceremony at the Capitol.
“None of us who stood here at the end of last session could have predicted what the people of our state and nation have endured over the last year. The pandemic has robbed us of mothers, fathers, friends, and neighbors. Families and business across our state are still feeling these impacts each and every day.
“When I was elected Senate President last fall, I talked about the importance of seizing our days like a farmer, with long-term vision, and a solid work ethic, knowing that what we plant today is for a future harvest. With the leadership of our Governor, Speaker, and my fellow legislators, we accomplished that goal this session with key structural changes to our child welfare system, K-12 education, as well as water quality, environment protection, and infrastructure planning, while increasing the minimum wage for state employees to $13 per hour years in advance of the timeline set forth in the constitution.
“We passed pro-consumer insurance reforms that will keep costs down by improving competition in these markets. We passed pandemic liability protections for businesses and health care providers doing their best to serve Floridians during unprecedented times, and prevented an unexpected tax hike on businesses, while replenishing the unemployment compensation trust fund Florida families count on during tough times. We responsibly invested nonrecurring federal funds in key infrastructure priorities that will create jobs and further bolster Florida’s recovering economy, and used state funds to bolster our rainy day fund to $6 billion in state reserves. As we are now coming out on the other side, I believe this session we have created a framework that will benefit our state for generations to come as Florida’s best days are ahead.”
President Simpson further commented below on just a few of the many successful initiatives championed by the Florida Senate during the 2021 Legislative Session.
Child Welfare: Protections, Consistency for Children in Out-of-Home Care
Senate Bill 80, Child Welfare, by Senator Jason Brodeur (R-Sanford) increases protections and consistency for children in out-of-home care. The legislation expands and clarifies existing laws related to sibling and transition placements for children in out-of-home care. The bill works to recognize and balance relationships young children develop with out-of-home caregivers and siblings with those of the child’s biological family members, in order to reduce trauma related to abrupt or frequent placement changes that remove children from safe, successful placements. The bill also requires that a quick reference FACE sheet be created for each child to summarize the status of the child’s case and goals moving forward.
“All too often people with the best of intentions get so caught up in finding the perfect situation for a child that we pass up a really good home where the child will be loved and cared for. Government is a horrible parent, and childhood is way too short for any kid to spend years waiting in limbo bouncing from home to home. We know the earlier in life we can give a child a permanent living situation, the better off that child will be in the long run,” said President Simpson, who was adopted at age six and has made improving Florida’s Child Welfare System a top priority of his term as Senate President. “This great legislation provides a more thoughtful framework for how we make decisions about where a child is going to live, recognizing that in some cases consistency and the depth of relationships developed in out of home care count more than biology.”
Child Welfare: Reporting, Transparency, Training
Senate Bill 96, Child Welfare, by Senator Lauren Book (D-Plantation), combines a series of child welfare reform initiatives advanced during the 2021 Legislative Session, including SB 92 by Senate President Pro Tempore Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach), SB 900 by Senator Ana Maria Rodriguez (R-Miami), and HB 1447/SB 1844 by Senator Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg). Among other reforms, the legislation strengthens and streamlines child welfare procedures and addresses critical gaps in investigations and information transparency.
“I am grateful to my colleagues for their hard work on these sensitive and difficult issues. We know government makes a horrible parent, but in these cases, government is having to step in because for any number of reasons a parent has fallen short of their responsibility to care for a child. This legislation represents a comprehensive series of reforms, from training to reporting, to make sure that no child falls through the cracks,” said President Simpson.
SB 96 requires animal control officers who suspect child abuse to make a report to the Department of Children and Families, and conversely for child abuse investigators to report suspected animal abuse to animal control. To improve child safety, the bill requires various steps, including school educational programs, to help children become knowledgeable about their rights to be free from abuse. The bill also requires the DCF to develop and implement a family-finding program and a kinship navigator program to strengthen family connections, resources and placement options. To improve transparency, the bill expands access to confidential reports and records in cases of child abuse or neglect to include employees, authorized agents, and contract providers of the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. The bill also implements the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School grand jury recommendation to appoint a commission to specifically examine the mental health services in the state, creating a 19-member Commission on Mental Health and Substance Abuse to examine the current methods of providing mental health and substance abuse services in Florida.
COVID-19 Liability Protections for Businesses and Health Care Providers
Senate Bill 72, Liability Protections for COVID-19-Related Claims, by Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), offers strong protections from civil liability related to the COVID-19 Pandemic for health care providers working to serve Floridians and businesses trying to safely reopen. The legislation was signed into law by Governor DeSantis on March 29, 2021.
“Our hardworking and dedicated health care providers have been on the front lines of this pandemic from day one, putting their own health in jeopardy to help others. Meanwhile, businesses across Florida are doing the best they can to safely reopen and keep people employed during a period of extreme uncertainty,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby). “The last thing we want is for businesses and health care providers, who do the right thing, to face a constant threat of frivolous lawsuits that hamper their ability to serve their patients and customers.”
Prevention of an Unexpected Tax Hikes on Florida Businesses, Replenishment of the Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund
Senate Bill 50, Taxation, by Senator Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota), creates a fair playing field for Florida businesses by requiring the collection of existing taxes that are owed, but not currently collected from out-of-state online retailers. Revenue derived from these collections will be used to replenish the Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund depleted by the COVID-19 Pandemic, ensuring necessary compensation is available for Florida workers seeking re-employment. When the trust fund reaches pre-pandemic levels, the new law automatically triggers a permanent reduction in the business rent tax. The legislation was signed into law by Governor DeSantis on April 20, 2021.
“Rather than treating additional revenue that is already owed to the state as a windfall, this law makes sure that we reinvest these funds in our Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund, helping businesses survive a situation no one could have anticipated, and shoring up benefits for the struggling Floridians who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own,” said President Simpson. “Moving forward, by reducing the business rent tax, we will continue to help existing businesses, encourage more entrepreneurs, and have an even better recruiting portfolio for businesses we want to lure away from highly regulated, high-tax states.”
Right to Farm
Senate Bill 88, Farming Operations, by State Senator Jason Brodeur (R-Sanford), expands and modernizes protections currently available under the Right to Farm Act (originally passed in 1979) to protect farmers from lawsuits based on their routine farming and agricultural activities. The bill also adds agritourism to the definition of farm operation. The legislation was signed into law by Governor DeSantis on April 29, 2021.
“The Senate is committed to preserving Florida’s farms, legacy businesses that contribute to our nation’s food supply and billions of dollars to our state’s economy,” said President Simpson, a lifelong farmer. “As more and more people leave densely populated areas of the country and relocate to rural areas of our state, residential development encroaches on our rural areas. Friction between these competing land uses can lead to litigation that threatens the survival of legacy farming communities. We frequently update our laws to recognize changes in other industries, and I want to make sure our hardworking Florida farmers aren’t left behind.”
School Choice Options for Florida Families
House Bill 7045, School Choice, sponsored in the Senate by Senator Manny Diaz, Jr. (R-Hialeah), maximizes parental choice by expanding eligibility and streamlining key school choice scholarship programs for students with unique abilities and students from lower income families.
“I’m pleased to see the Senate stand with Florida parents who overwhelmingly support expanding eligibility for these popular school choice programs. We want school choice to be an option for every family. This important legislation further streamlines our existing school choice scholarships, and expands eligibility for lower income families, families of students with unique abilities, adopted children, and children whose parents serve in our military,” said President Simpson.
Comprehensive Plan to Invest in Florida’s Infrastructure
Senate Bill 2512, Documentary Stamp Tax Distributions, a conforming bill associated with the state budget, establishes a three-part statewide infrastructure plan to prioritize investing in state and local affordable housing programs, mitigating the impacts of sea level rise, and enhancing wastewater programs, including septic-to-sewer conversions. The new framework provides predictable funding for all three infrastructure priorities on a recurring basis.
“Floridians have been waiting a long time for comprehensive policy and budget planning that addresses these three critical areas of public policy. Nearly every year we end up sweeping documentary stamp money that is dedicated to affordable housing into our general revenue fund to spend it on the needs of the day. We also have a tendency to create programs that sound great, but which we don’t actually fund. This proposal addresses all of these issues by modernizing our documentary stamp distributions to dedicate a steady stream of funding in three key areas of infrastructure – affordable housing, wastewater, and mitigation of sea-level rise,” said President Simpson.
Under the distribution outlined in SB 2512, during the upcoming fiscal year, affordable housing programs would receive approximately $200 million. Programs established to mitigate the impacts of sea level rise and enhance wastewater programs would each receive approximately $111 million. (These amounts do not include federal funding.) Revenue estimates for documentary stamps are updated several times each year.
Statewide Flooding and Sea-level Rise Resilience Plan
Senate Bill 1954, Statewide Flooding and Sea-level Rise Resilience, by Senator Ray Rodrigues (R-Estero) establishes statewide resiliency programs that assess and address inland and coastal flooding and sea level rise.
“This great legislation elevates flood mitigation as a critical part of Florida’s public safety infrastructure. With 35 coastal counties containing the majority of our population and economy, our risks are only going to increase with time,” said President Simpson. “With this legislation, Florida can become a national example of resilient communities. I’m grateful to Speaker Sprowls for his vision and leadership on this key issue, and to Senator Rodrigues for his tremendous work in moving this key legislation through the Senate.”
Expediting Water Storage North of Lake Okeechobee
Senate Bill 2516, Water Storage North of Lake Okeechobee. A conforming bill linked to Senate Bill 2500, the General Appropriations Act, the legislation provides the policy framework and funding for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), to expedite implementation of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP).
“In recent years, Florida’s Legislature has appropriated unprecedented funding to address environmental restoration. Collaborative efforts between the state and federal government successfully expedited the beginning phases of construction of the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. Now it is time to build on this momentum by focusing on projects north of the lake,” said President Simpson. “I am grateful to my Senate colleagues for approaching solutions north of the lake with the same vigor we had for southern storage. Implementation of the LOWRP is the most important element of restoration for the northern Everglades ecosystem, as approximately 95 percent of the water, 92 percent of the phosphorus, and 89 percent of the nitrogen flowing into Lake Okeechobee comes from north of the lake.”
The LOWRP is a project in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan that provides water storage north of Lake Okeechobee. The northern storage the LOWRP provides will be used to help keep lake levels from rising too high in the wet season and make water available for release in the dry season. This creates the operational flexibility necessary to help maintain lake levels that are ideal for the lake’s ecology and helps ensure adequate water supply for users around the lake.
Targeted Improvements to Highway Projects
Senate Bill 100, Highway Projects, by Senator Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart), builds on Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (MCORES) task force recommendations by strategically redirecting transportation funding and offering statewide policy directives to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). The bill directs DOT to retrofit existing roadways with non-toll road alternatives to traffic intersections such as overpasses to alleviate congestion on local roads in order to facilitate the free-flow of traffic on U.S. 19, providing an expedited route connecting the Suncoast Parkway to I-10. The bill also directs and funds the FDOT to prioritize widening projects on rural, two-lane arterial highways throughout Florida that serve high volumes of local and commercial vehicle traffic and provides for non-tolled roadway and access options.
“Throughout the last year and a half, Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance Task Forces met to evaluate, receive public comment, and make recommendations regarding proposed toll-road construction projects through three regions of the state. The Task Force reports, along with important public input, provide an alternative roadmap to enhance critical evacuation routes and realize improved traffic flow throughout certain rural areas of the state by leveraging existing roadways. Re-envisioning our existing roadways will save taxpayer dollars and serve to better address environmental concerns of Floridians,” said President Simpson.