July 30, 2021

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Budget, bass, bicycle seats: Florida passes big mix of bills

The Florida Legislature approved bills that will make it more difficult to vote, create tough penalties for violent protests, shield businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits, ban transgenders from girls’ sports and make it more difficult for citizens to change the constitution.

They also passed bills during the 60-day session that ended Friday that deal with bicycle seats, largemouth bass, bestiality, flying squirrels, the delivery of cocktails. They also approved a $101.5 billion state budget.

It was strange session in several ways, not the least of which was the public wasn’t allowed in the Capitol because of the coronavirus pandemic, even though Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis opened up the rest of the state to anyone and everyone. Overall, more than 270 bills were passed including just about all of the priorities of DeSantis and the Republican leadership.

A year ago as unemployment was rising and tourism slowed to a crawl, it would have been unthinkable that the state would increase its budget by nearly $10 billion. Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson said state revenue was $300 million to $400 million ahead of predictions every month.

“By opening Florida earlier, our economy was coming back much quicker,” Simpson said. “Clearly the federal stimulus coming in helps us bolster our one-time projects.”

The state included nearly $7 billion in federal relief money in its budget. Among other items, it is being used to provide $1,000 bonuses for teachers, first responders and early learning instructors. There will also be money spent on environmental projects and infrastructure.

While many of the bills going to the governor had unanimous support, including a measure that seeks to prevent the excessive use of force by police, there were many contentious issues that Democrats were helpless to stop given the strong majority Republicans hold in both chambers.

“It’s like this constant cycle of creating fake villains for culture wars and then slaying those villains and celebrating it,” said Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani. “From voter suppression to attacking trans kids … it’s one culture war after the other, and there is no moderation between both chambers so these really bad bills make it to the governor’s desk. It’s horrifying.”

While DeSantis and other Republicans praised Florida for running a flawless election, the governor and Legislature successful pushed for election changes that places new restrictions on ballot drop boxes and people gathering and turning in vote-by-mail ballots.

Republicans also passed a bill, already signed by DeSantis, that will create tougher penalties for people who participate in violent protests. Opponents said it was a racist bill inspired to squash the voices of groups like Black Lives Matter and that while there were violent protests around the country, it wasn’t a problem in Florida.

The new law enhances penalties for crimes committed during a riot or violent protest. It allows authorities to hold arrested protesters until a first court appearance and establishes new felonies for organizing or participating in a violent demonstration.

The first bill DeSantis signed provides protections for businesses against COVID-19 related lawsuits if they made a good-faith effort to take precautions to prevent the spread of the disease. Democrats argued it would deny access to courts to seek compensation for injuries and death.

Democrats also unsuccessfully fought a bill that prohibits students from participating in girls’ sports unless they were listed as a girl on their original birth certificate.

Republicans also passed a bill that would set a $3,000 donation limit to groups seeking to change the state constitution through a ballot initiative. The limit would have made it nearly impossible to gather petitions for recently voter-approved amendments that legalized medical marijuana and gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

But there were also the more obscure bills, like a measure that allows the commercial farming of largemouth bass for consumption. Wild caught bass can’t be sold. And another bill cracks down on animal trafficking, inspired by a criminal ring that was capturing flying squirrels and shipping them to Asia.

And another bill tweaks a law that prohibits people from riding bicycles that don’t have seats. It will allow seatless bicycles if the manufacturer designed them that way, such as elliptical bicycles.

And restaurants will be able to package cocktails for take out and delivery, a practice DeSantis temporarily allowed to help restaurants during the pandemic.

And in a recognition that people who abuse animals tend to abuse children, the Legislature passed a bill that will increase penalties for bestiality and create a new law banning pornography depicting people having sex with animals. It also requires child protective investigators to report suspected cases of animal abuse and to be trained on how to recognize it. Animal control officers would also need to immediately report suspected child abuse or neglect and would be trained to recognize it.

Lawmakers finished their business by mid-afternoon Friday — also a rarity. But they will return in two weeks for a special session to debate and vote on a gambling compact DeSantis signed with the Seminole tribe.