Florida lawmakers embark on session unlike any other

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida lawmakers will begin their annual legislative session on Tuesday.

This will be Florida’s 123rd session since achieving statehood, but it will be different than any other held before as the state Capitol remains closed to most visitors in light of public health concerns surrounding the pandemic.

The flowers outside are freshly planted and the grounds newly pressure washed, but that’s about all that will be the same in the first full legislative session since the coronavirus pandemic began.

WATCH AT 11 A.M.: Tuesday’s joint session, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ state-of-the-state speech streaming on News4Jax.com

In years past, sessions might bring 1,000 or more people a day to the Capitol. This year, it’s a completely different story with the building closed to most and Senate committee rooms off limits.

In-person testimony is now done remotely, though participants must still be in Tallahassee. Even long-time lobbyists find the changes a bit unnerving.

“It’s surreal,” insurance lobbyist Mark Delegal said. “I don’t even feel like I am talking to anyone.”

The House is allowing a limited number of people on a first-come, first-served basis to testify before committees. But the opening day of the session will be off limits to all visitors.A coalition of groups is calling on both chambers to allow live remote testimony from anyone anywhere in Florida.

“Public testimony is not working,” said Carol Boyd with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“The idea that you would open it up to any person that wanted to (testify) anywhere in the world is pretty ridiculous,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson.

Florida’s Constitution doesn’t allow lawmakers to meet virtually, but there will be an effort to change that this year.

Legislators, staff and reporters are tested each week before being allowed inside the Capitol.

With all the precautions in place, the 2021 session will be different from the past, except for the politics that will permeate every discussion.

Two pandemic-related committees are examining how to keep the state safe and open if a future pandemic were to hit.

A Senate committee voted Monday to put a time limit on how long a governor’s executive order can remain in place.