Florida Government News for August / September 2021

August / September Florida Government News

Responding to the Coronavirus

Over the summer, Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Departments of Health and Education, and Attorney General Ashley Moody continued their forceful defense of the state’s right to prohibit vaccine or mask mandates, as challenges multiplied and made their way through the courts.

Vaccine Mandates

Last month, a U.S. District Judge blocked Florida from enforcing its law banning proof of vaccination in a case brought by Norwegian Cruise Lines in July. (Miami Herald, 8/8/21)

This month, Florida joined a suit against a vaccine mandate for Gainesville city employees. (The Capitolist, 9/15/21)

And Attorney General Ashley Moody joined a coalition of 24 attorneys general in suing the Biden administration over the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. (Florida Politics, 9/17/21)

Mask Mandates

As the litigation challenging DeSantis’ executive order prohibiting mask mandates continues, the state made it easier for parents of students who object to a school’s mask mandate to obtain taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools. (News4Jax.com, 8/6/21)

As further punishment of school districts who defy his order, DeSantis had the Department of Education withhold the monthly salaries of Broward and Alachua County school board members over their mask mandates. (NBCMiami.com, 8/30/21)

And the State Board of Education will meet next week to consider action against Orange County Public Schools and 10 other school districts with mask mandates, continuing Florida’s ongoing battle over who decides if children wear face coverings at school. (Orlando Sentinel, 9/29/21)

In response, the U.S. Department of Education announced a program to provide federal funds to schools that have been financially penalized for imposing COVID-19 mitigation measures like mask mandates. (USDOE, 9/9/21)

Grants to the Alachua and Broward County School Districts were among the first grants given under the program. (Forbes, 9/23/21; News Service of Florida via WLRN, 9/28/21)

Meanwhile, an appeals court ruled that Florida can continue its ban as the school districts’ challenge makes its way through the courts. (NYTimes, 9/10/21)

Antibody Treatments

As coronavirus cases spiked in August, DeSantis ramped up a call for Floridians to seek out an antibody treatment sold by Regeneron which was used on then-President Donald Trump after he tested positive for COVID-19 last year. DeSantis has created rapid response units to deliver the treatment at several sites across the state, including in Immokalee in Collier County. (AP News, 8/18/21; Orlando Sentinel, 8/12/21)

Since Aug. 12, when the state’s first monoclonal antibody site was opened, through Sep. 16, Florida experienced a more than 50% decrease in hospital admissions, a decline in hospital census for 24 consecutive days, and COVID-like emergency room visits are down to the lowest point in nearly two months. (DeSantis News Release, 9/16/21)

A New Surgeon General

On Sep. 21, Gov. DeSantis named Dr. Joseph Ladapo as Florida Surgeon General and Secretary of the Florida Department of Health. (DeSantis News Release, 9/21/21)

Lapado is a Harvard-trained doctor who advocated for an approach to the coronavirus pandemic that emphasizes protecting individual rights over community-based precautions. (Miami Herald, 9/21/21; Boston Globe, 9/23/21)

Lapado replaced former Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, who had not spoken publicly since abruptly being called out of a news conference in the early days of the pandemic. (Politico Florida, 7/17/21)

One of Lapado’s first acts was to repeal DeSantis’ mask mandate rule and replace it with one that leaves the option for masking in schools to parents and legal guardians in their “sole discretion.” The move had the immediate effect of bringing an administrative hearing on a school district-led complaint challenging the state’s ban of strict mask mandates to a screeching halt. (Tampa Bay Times, 9/22/21)

Access to COVID-19 Data

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, and the Florida Center for Government Accountability (FCGA) have sued the state for not providing detailed, daily statistics about the state’s COVID-19 cases, claiming violation of the state’s open-records laws. Florida stopped providing daily updates about COVID-19 cases and deaths in June. (Florida Center for Government Accountability, 8/31/21)

Smith and the FCGA have been joined in the lawsuit by the NYTimes, the Washington Post, the USA TODAY Network, and several other major news media companies. (USA Today Network-Florida, 9/21/21)

Final hearings in the case are set for Sep. 29 and 30., but at the last minute, plaintiffs filed an emergency motion for deferral, citing a death in the family of the lead attorney. (News Service of Florida via WFSU Public Media, 9/27/21)

Separately, the Department of Health has made several changes to its data methodology over the span of the pandemic. Most recently, it began reporting deaths by date of death. Previously it reported deaths by the date they were recorded, the method used by most states. As a result, as cases ballooned in August, reported death data gave the appearance of a pandemic in decline. (Bradenton Herald, 8/31/21)

Slow Uptake on Federal COVID Relief

Florida has about $10 billion remaining from its allotment of the Education Stabilization Fund and nearly $727 million remains unspent for housing aid. (Tampa Bay Times, 8/31/21; WPTV, 9/15/21)

It was also, until recently, the only state that didn’t apply for available federal food aid money for children in low-income households. (Tampa Bay Times, 9/21/21)

Florida also did not tap until recently into a series of Medicaid incentives included in the American Rescue Plan. While federal approval of $1.1 billion in Medicaid is now “imminent,” Legislative approval is still needed before any money received can be spent. (Florida Politics, 9/24/21)

Finally, amid signs that the latest round of COVID-19 infections may have peaked, a Legislative commission approved a $750 million budget amendment to pay for testing, medical staff support, and a media campaign to encourage vaccinations. It would be paid for with federal relief funds received over the past two years. (News Service of Florida via WUSF Public Media, 9/7/21)

The 2022 Legislative Session

The Florida Legislature’s Interim Committee meetings are underway ahead of the 2022 Legislative Session. Senate and House committees received presentations, held discussion panels highlighting issues facing Florida, and heard updates on the implementation of legislation passed last session.

The 2022 Session begins January 11.

Florida Redistricting

Lawmakers last week officially kicked off the process of redrawing the state’s Congressional and Legislative district lines ahead of the 2022 elections. A new redistricting website was launched by the Florida House and Florida Senate to be used by lawmakers and the general public to generate maps for consideration as well as information about opportunities for public engagement. (The Paradise Progressive, 9/27/21)

In an effort to “take steps against the shadow process” that marred legislative redistricting 10 years ago, Senate Reapportionment Committee Chair Ray Rodrigues and House Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee Chair Tyler Sirois promise greater transparency this time around. (Bradenton Herald, 9/20/21; Tampa Bay Times, 9/24/21)

But a recent survey indicates a significant majority of rank-and-file Floridians, including Republicans, don’t trust lawmakers or the system and believe they will “gerrymander” districts so the elected select their electorate rather than the other way around. (The Center Square | Florida, 9/16/21)

DeSantis in Other News

Facing extensive and chronic recruitment and retention problems within the Florida Highway Patrol, DeSantis offers bonuses to lure out-of-state troopers. (Orlando Sentinel, 8/30/21)

In a precedent-setting action, DeSantis named a new Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection without seeking cabinet approval. (Tampa Bay Times, 9/1/21)

DeSantis wants to eliminate state end-of-year testing and create a new plan to monitor student progress and foster individual growth. States have the discretion to establish a standards and assessment system, provided that it meets the requirement of the Every Student Succeeds Act. (Staff News Release, 9/14/21; Florida Phoenix, 9/14/21

DeSantis tapped a former top Trump administration lawyer for the Florida Judicial Nominating Commission. Chad Mizelle, who served as Trump’s Department of Homeland Security top lawyer, is known as an anti-immigration hawk who engineered many of the administration’s hard-line border policies. (Florida Politics, 9/24/21)

On Sep. 28, DeSantis issued an executive order prohibiting state agencies from assisting in the illegal resettling of undocumented border crossers. At the same time, Attorney General Ashley Moody sued the Biden administration over enforcement of immigration laws. (Florida Politics, 9/28/21

Florida in the Courts

A federal judge agreed with the ACLU that a Florida campaign finance law violates the First Amendment. The law capped contributions to citizens’ initiative committees sponsoring prospective constitutional amendments. The state will not appeal. (The Center Square | Florida, 8/10/21)

The DeSantis administration seeks to scuttle a challenge to Florida’s transgender athlete law. The ban was one of the most controversial issues of this year’s legislative session. (News Service of Florida via WLRN, 8/24/21)

The ACLU claims that Florida failed to comply with a new law requiring creation of a public database they say is key toward exposing racial disparities in criminal sentencing. (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 8/25/21)

A Leon County circuit judge said DeSantis had the legal right to halt $300-a-week payments to Floridians from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program. (News Service of Florida via WLRN, 8/30/21)

Two pari-mutuel facilities have filed a second lawsuit challenging DeSantis’s 30-year, $20 billion agreement with the Seminole Tribe. (News Service of Florida via South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 8/31/21)

A federal judge delivered a major blow to DeSantis when he temporarily blocked enforcement of a key part of Florida’s controversial “anti-riot” law, a centerpiece of his legislative agenda. (Politico Florida, 9/9/21)

More than 30 local governments sued to overturn a Florida law that imposes stiff penalties on local officials who approve gun restrictions. The Florida Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. (Miami Herald, 9/9/21)

The state wants a federal judge to toss out a challenge to Florida’s new “Intellectual Freedom” law that requires conducting surveys on Florida college and university campuses. (News Service of Florida via WFSU, 9/14/21)

A federal judge blocked Florida from enforcing a ban on so-called sanctuary cities, declaring portions of the law unconstitutional and tinged with “discriminatory motives.” (Miami Herald, 9/21/21)

News from Washington

All Florida voters elect the state’s two U.S. Senators.
Florida’s U.S. Senators are Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.

Marco Rubio and Rick Scott voted against the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill last month, rejecting a carefully negotiated agreement crafted during marathon meetings on Capitol Hill between Democrats and Republicans. (Tampa Bay Times, 8/10/21)

Lawmakers in more than 20 states have introduced bills banning Critical Race Theory, at least eight including Florida have adopted such measures, and school boards nationwide have pondered similar actions. Now, several bills filed in the U.S. Senate and House, including four co-sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, seek to ban it nationwide. (The Center Square | Florida, 8/12/21)

That’s it for Florida government news for now. I’ll be back in about a month with my next recap.

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