Florida Senate’s COVID-19 precautions have some advocates feeling shut out



Left-leaning advocates already face an ideological Mount Everest when trying to persuade the Republican-controlled Legislature to heed their recommendations.

But the Florida Senate’s COVID-19 precautions have made their jobs an almost Sisyphean task, according to representatives of organizations that work on issues involving low-income families, immigrants and labor unions.

“It’s the people who are most negatively impacted by COVID, as well as all of the other negative legislation that members are running, that don’t have access,” veteran lobbyist Karen Woodall told reporters during a video conference this week.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican with a business background in environmental mitigation, severely restricted access to the Senate Office Building and Senate committee meetings in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s start of the 2021 legislative session. 

Simpson hired experts from Tampa General Hospital to help develop the protocols, which will largely remain in place in the Senate throughout the 60-day session.

Under the procedures, members of the public who wish to comment during Senate committee meetings must do so by video from the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center at Florida State University.

But testifying in front of a microphone a few blocks away from the senators doesn’t cut it, Woodall and other advocates argued.

“What we’re dealing with right now is a lockdown of the process,” Florida AFL-CIO lobbyist Rich Templin said. “The access to the Florida Senate is completely eliminated. The building is shut down.”

Templin said his union brought 450 members to the Capitol during last year’s legislative session.

“This wasn’t a one-time lobby day. This was a sustained presence here in the Capitol. This year we anticipate having zero,” he added.

Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, has asked Simpson to allow people to testify from remote locations throughout the state.

But Simpson recently said such a plan would present a logistical nightmare.

The Florida House adopted a more lenient approach than the Senate during committee weeks leading up to the session.

If members of the public or lobbyists wished to address committees in person, they had to sign up online at least three hours before the meetings and obtain what was essentially a hall pass with their names and the locations of the meetings. House aides checked the passes to ensure that only pre-registered people were allowed access to meeting rooms.

Simpson says the Senate’s protocols are designed to maximize the safety of senators and staff members.

Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Simpson, pointed out that the Senate has set up tables outdoors where senators can meet with lobbyists and constituents. She acknowledged there have been some technological glitches during the civic center testimony.

“There’s going to be people who are upset, and there’s going to be technical issues, and we’re trying to work through all that. But at the end of the day, the Senate president’s responsibility is to ensure the safety and security of senators and staff. We all look forward to the day we can resume more traditional procedures,” she told the News Service of Florida on Friday.

The complaints about access come as the Senate sheds its historic reputation as the more moderate and deliberative of the two legislative chambers.

The Senate has steadily crept away from the political center since Republicans secured a majority in both chambers and cemented a hold on the governor’s mansion more than two decades ago.

But the November elections, the coronavirus pandemic and an expanded GOP caucus have emboldened Senate leaders to embrace what may be the most conservative agenda in recent years as they prepare for the 2021 session.

“They are purely political red-meat issues, and they’re not real. These are not things that Floridians are clamoring for for legislative action,” Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview. 

Proposals teed up for the legislative session run the gamut from education to policing and include measures targeting labor unions, expanding school-voucher programs and making it harder for Floridians to vote by mail. Simpson recently said the Senate also is open to a plan that would limit the amount of euphoria-inducing THC in medical marijuana, a move the Senate has blocked for the past two years.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump, is pushing legislation aimed at curtailing technology behemoths such as Twitter and Facebook. The governor is also championing a proposal that would crack down on violent protests, a plan that has received harsh criticism from Democrats and free-speech advocates.

While the Senate has not considered all of the controversial proposals, committees have given preliminary approval to bills, including the so-called “union-busting” measure and a plan to move away from the traditional pension system for state workers, that the upper chamber has blocked in previous sessions.

Republicans head into the 60-day session after the November elections bolstered the GOP’s strength. Simpson not only fought off Democrats’ efforts to make gains in the Senate, he also picked up a Miami-Dade County seat, delivering a 24-16 majority to Republicans.

Simpson, however, doesn’t view legislation Farmer labeled “red meat” for Republicans through the same lens. The Senate president doesn’t even acknowledge that his chamber is more conservative in the aftermath of the 2020 elections.

“I think the conservative and liberal scale changes over time. I think that’s in the eye of the beholder,” Simpson told the News Service.

Lawmakers will face a major challenge as they put together a budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, with the pandemic cutting into state revenues. But high-profile issues loom in a variety of areas, including education and elections.

Continuing years of Republican efforts to boost school choice, lawmakers are considering a major school-vouchers bill that includes expanding eligibility for scholarship programs and creating what are known as “education savings accounts.” 

Meanwhile, as they draw up a budget, lawmakers will have to decide how to address nearly 88,000 students who did not enroll as expected this year during the pandemic.

Also, after bragging about Florida’s relatively smooth November elections, Republican leaders are backing controversial proposals that would change the vote-by-mail process. As an example, one proposal would require voters to request vote-by-mail ballots more frequently, while another would prevent volunteers from collecting vote-by-mail ballots from people outside of their families. Critics argue the proposals are aimed at reducing mail-in voting, which Democrats used heavily during the 2020 elections.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “There may be a mentality of, they have us down and they want to put their boots on our necks by feeding their base and strengthening their base and maybe getting more Trumpers to decide they want to move to Florida so they have even more.” — Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, addressing conservative-leaning legislation rapidly moving through the Republican-controlled Senate.

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