If, and when, lawmakers will hold a special session to tackle COVID-19’s impacts on the state budget and other major parts of life in Florida are questions dominating political pundits’ chatter.
The financial picture will start to become clearer when April sales tax revenues are reported in May. A panel of economists is expected to meet in June to consider what likely will be the disease’s devastating impact on sales tax collections, which comprise about 74 percent of Florida’s general revenue.
Democrats are pushing for a special session to address myriad issues surrounding COVID-19, such as fixing the beleaguered system Floridians use to apply for unemployment compensation benefits.
But House and Senate Republican leaders insist it’s too soon to set a date.
House Speaker José Oliva acknowledged that legislators of both parties “have valid concerns and the desire to return to activity, which I share.”
House leaders’ focus now, however, is to aid Gov. Ron DeSantis, who put together a task force to make recommendations on reopening the state.
“The tremendous impact on our budget may require us to return to Tallahassee soon, and perhaps subjects outside of spending will be addressed,” Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said in a prepared statement provided Friday to The News Service of Florida.
The topics the libertarian-leaning House leader has in mind, however, might give local officials chills.
“The subjects include but are not limited to the powers granted to governments and their limitations with regards to our individual liberties in moments of crisis. A special session’s only current value is of a political nature and politics is what is least needed at this critical moment,” he said.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley also said a special session isn’t on the immediate horizon.
“You don’t assess the damage and response in the middle of a hurricane. We will know much more in two or three months,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said in an interview this week.
The Senate budget chief predicted the state will fare better than was anticipated when the regular legislative session concluded in March.
“Worst-case scenario was the Great Depression 2.0, and best-case scenario was a v-shaped recovery where we snap back to where we were before,” Bradley said. “My sense is that it is going to be more towards the rosier scenario than the doomsday scenario. But it’s going to take a while.”
DUSTING OFF THE WELCOME MAT
DeSantis’ Re-Open Florida Task Force met throughout the week to rush recommendations to the governor.
The task force is dominated by elected officials, leaders of lobbying groups, and leaders of large businesses including Disney World, Universal Orlando, Publix, Florida Power & Light, AT&T, Tampa General Hospital, Raymond James Financial Services and Lockheed Martin.
Working groups of the task force explored issues involving specific industries.
While some of the elected officials and people representing lobbying groups run small businesses, a working group focused on tourism, retail and transportation had only a single person identified as representing a small business, Amy Schwartz, the owner of Bella Bella Restaurant, which is blocks from the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee.
Working-group meetings featured discussions from Walmart, which remains open as an essential business, Universal Orlando, owners of international fast food chains and professional sports organizations.
On Wednesday, members of the task force expressed a need to hear less about what the state’s giant corporations are doing to get through the crisis.
Oliva said small-business owners need to know quickly what they must do to maintain social distancing and safety for workers and customers when allowed to reopen.
“We’ve heard a great deal from a large number of very large corporations, who have within them great resources to do things that small companies cannot do,” said Oliva, who is a member of the task force’s executive committee. “I think what small businesses are looking for in the very short term is the understanding of, ‘Can I open my barber shop if people are x amount of feet apart, if the people that are working within the barber shop are wearing certain protective gear, and if only so many people can be in the unit.’”
DeSantis has issued an executive order largely directing people to stay home until April 30. But businesses that have been forced to close have not received an outline about how they can reopen.
The governor is expected to release his reopening plan early next week.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
More than one in 10 new jobless claims across the United States last week were made to Florida’s overwhelmed unemployment system, according to numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, trying to reduce a massive backlog of claims, by Thursday had processed 30.6 percent of its claims, with unemployment payments of up of $275 a week going out to 17 percent of the applicants.
On Thursday, the federal labor department reported Florida had an estimated 505,137 first-time applications of the 4.4 million new unemployment claims filed during the week ending April 19.
Applicants continue to express frustrations about being cut off from Florida’s online CONNECT unemployment system and not being able to get through to call centers for assistance. The state expanded the ways people can apply, making a second online system available and allowing people to fill out paper applications.
People who have lost their jobs and are applying for checks of $600 under a federal stimulus program also must navigate the state’s unemployment site.
DeSantis on Tuesday described the CONNECT system, which cost $77 million to get online in 2013, as a “jalopy” but said the state was making "a lot of great progress" in getting checks out.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Re-Open Florida Task Force met throughout the week to come up with strategies to get the state back to work, after widespread shutdowns due to COVID-19.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Universal and Disney World and everyone else, God bless them, they’re a major part of the economy, they’re going to work it out … But what the very small business owner is looking for is, ‘Just tell me what I’ve got to do to open my doors.’” —- House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, a member of Re-Open Florida Task Force executive committee.
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