TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Legislature began its 2020 session Tuesday, as it prepared to consider hundreds of bills, including pay raises for teachers, climate change and immigration -- as well as approving the billions of dollars required to keep the country’s third-most populous state operating.
The Senate banged into session first, opening its session by commemorating the Dec. 6 shooting at the Pensacola naval air station that killed three sailors.
Addressing a joint session of the state House and Senate, Gov. Ron DeSantis during his state-of-the-state urged cooperation.
"This is Florida’s season of opportunity,'' DeSantis told lawmakers. "We have the chance to build on a strong foundation, the chance to face the challenges before us and the chance to leave a legacy of success that will benefit our people now and in the future.''
In his opening remarks, Senate President Bill Galvano, a Republican, reminded his chamber of the weighty responsibility lawmakers have.
“As we go into this session let us continue to show our constituents that we can exchange and debate ideas while maintaining civility and decorum,” he told the chamber. "That we can problem solve together. That we can put aside personalities and politics for good policy. And, that we are not a microcosm of Washington, D.C., but instead will continue to be an example for Washington, D.C.''
In the House, Speaker Jose Oliva was far more policy-oriented in his opening remarks, indicating that health care would be a key issue in his final session leading the 120-member chamber.
In his remarks, Oliva criticized what he called the "health care industrial complex,'' including drug companies, hospitals and medical device companies that he called "the great robber-barons of our time.''
“As we turn our attention forward we still face many challenges. Chief among them continues to be health care,” Oliva told his chamber.
“We did not choose health care as our priority,” he said. “No, it chose us, it chose us through the sheer audacity of the defenders of the status quo.”
With a presidential election looming this fall, it remains to be seen how fiercely partisan divides might influence the work of lawmakers.
For now, there was an air of collegiality, and bouquets festooned the chambers. Outside the chambers, the Capitol halls and rotundas pulsed with activity. Opening day was also an important day for lobbyists and the activists who seek to influence lawmakers and the legislation that will be crafted over the 60 days the Legislature has to complete its business before adjourning.
While DeSantis enjoys strong relationships with lawmakers -- particularly his fellow Republicans who run both chambers of the statehouse -- he may not necessarily get everything he wants during his second year as the state’s chief executive.
His $91.4 billion budget calls for major spending on the environment and education -- including a nearly $1 billion outlay for teacher raises and bonuses. Some fiscally conservative lawmakers said they would give the spending intense scrutiny.
On the eve of the Legislature’s opening day, thousands of educators and their allies descended on the state Capitol to draw attention to the governor’s plan, saying his proposal was flawed because of potential pay inequities and because veteran educators and non-teaching school employees would be left out.
Some key Republicans have also cast doubt on the governor’s plan to require employers to use a federally operated electronic database -- known as E-Verify -- to check the immigration status of workers.
E-Verify has been opposed by agriculture, construction, tourism interests and other industries that rely on immigrant labor.
Legislation targets pharmacy benefit managers
With the legislative session underway, lawmakers have hundreds of bills before them, including legislation that could affect anyone who buys medication.
Those bills are House Bill 961 by Rep. Jackie Toledo, a Tampa Republican, and Senate Bill 1444 by Sen. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican.
The bills will go through committees, where they get discussed and potentially voted on, before they can make it the floor of the House or Senate. Lawmakers will hear from constituents such as Dr. Kevin Duane, a Jacksonville pharmacist.
“We’re in danger. We are absolutely in danger. The situation has never been like it is in the state the way it is right now. It’s crippling our ability to employ people, to frankly keep the doors open,” Duane said.
Duane is one of the pharmacists and physicians advocating for the legislation that would stop prescription drug middlemen called pharmacy benefit managers. Duane said those managers keep prescription drug discounts and direct patients almost exclusively to pharmacies that they own.
“They don’t make a drug. They don’t prescribe the drug. They don’t give the patient a drug. And yet they parked themselves in between the practitioner and the patient and they’ve extracted billions of dollars from the health care system, and it’s crippling our ability to provide access to care for patients," Duane said.
Duane has become one of the most vocal advocates for the legislation, something all new to him. It’s a contrast from being the owner of Jacksonville’s oldest pharmacy.
“I was born and raised in Jacksonville. I believe that my care and passion for our local community will absolutely give patients a superior choice in where to receive their medication services,” Duane said.
While the Florida Pharmacy Association backs the bill, the Florida Association of Health Plans is critical of it, according to the News Service of Florida.
The News Service of Florida reported that Audrey Brown, president and CEO of the Florida Association of Health Plans, said the insurance industry uses pharmacy benefit managers to reduce the cost of drugs to patients and employers.
“Ultimately, the legislation seeks to undermine pharmacy benefit drug-cost management tools, which, in turn, will increase costs to Florida taxpayers, businesses and patients through premium increases to pay for drug manufacturers’ price hikes,” said Brown, whose group represents HMOs and managed care plans.