By RYAN DAILEY
News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Just two weeks into the start of the 2024 legislative session, House and Senate leaders’ major priorities are sailing through the process — with Senate President Kathleen Passidomo seeing one of her wish-list items pass in the upper chamber on Thursday.
Senators voted unanimously to approve a wide-ranging plan that Passidomo and other supporters have touted as a strategy to expand health-care access as the state’s population continues to grow.
In an attempt to keep up with ballooning health care demand, the two bills that comprise the plan are designed to make changes such as increasing the number of doctors in the state, shifting patients away from emergency rooms and boosting health-innovation efforts.
Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who has long worked on health-care issues, called one of the bills (SB 7016) “probably the most comprehensive health-care bill I have ever seen.”
“It is changing the direction of health care,” Harrell said. “It’s going to make it more open and have more access for people. When we look at the population of Florida and the influx of people we have, we have to have providers out there.”
As is true with any legislation, the Senate and House will have to come to an agreement on a final product in order for it to reach the governor’s desk — and the Senate measures’ projected costs differ from a House version of the plan.
For example, Senate Health Policy Chairwoman Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, said an initial version of one of the bills would have cost about $800 million. But the Senate trimmed about $70 million before passing the bill Thursday. The House proposal would cost about $580 million.
“We don’t operate in a vacuum, and we have partners across the rotunda (in the House) who we have been talking to,” Burton said.
The other Senate bill (SB 7018), sponsored by Harrell, would set up a revolving-loan fund program for health innovation projects. That bill initially called for putting $75 million a year into the fund, but a change Thursday dropped the amount to $50 million.
The Senate plan also has a focus on helping Florida retain doctors who are graduating from medical school.
“It makes no sense to graduate people from medical school and not have residency programs for them here in Florida and then they go to another state,” Passidomo, R-Naples, told reporters Thursday. “It doesn’t make sense because when they move to another state and they put down roots, they stay there.”
House versions of the bills started moving forward last week.
THE COST TO OBJECT
After Florida saw more than 1,000 objections to school-library books and instructional materials during the last fiscal year, a House panel this week unanimously backed a bill that could lead to fees for people who file numerous challenges.
The House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee on Thursday approved a bill (HB 7025) that calls for people who make objections to more than five instructional materials during a calendar year to be assessed $100 for each additional objection. The proposed fees would apply to “a parent or resident who does not have a student enrolled in the school” where the material is located.
School districts would have to return money to people if their objections are upheld.
People who testified about the bill during Thursday’s committee meeting represented both sides of the larger debate about school-book scrutiny.
Ryan Kennedy, a program manager with the Florida Citizens Alliance, opposed the fee part of the bill.
“At Florida Citizens Alliance, we’ve been advocating for the removal of obscene materials. We just want to make sure that this is not a hindrance to that process,” Kennedy said. “For example, Collier County recently removed over 300 books. With that five-book challenge threshold, that would be a lot of people you would need to get to object to books. The school district removed it, they found those books objectionable.”
But Sue Woltanski, chairwoman of the Monroe County School Board, supported the proposed fees. Woltanski argued, in part, that processing book objections in large volumes can be a challenge for small school districts.
“I’m sure you’ve seen the data that the majority of the books that are being challenged across the country come from 11 individuals, and two of them live here in Florida. And it is a cumbersome burden to small school districts to have to have staff to review those books in time,” Woltanski said.
According to a House staff analysis, Florida had 1,218 objections to books and other materials during the 2022-2023 fiscal year, resulting in 386 books being removed from schools.
“Over half of the objections came from two school districts, Clay and Escambia. Clay County district schools reported 489 objections that resulted in removal of 177 book titles. Escambia County public schools reported 215 objections that resulted in the removal of nine book titles,” the analysis said.
The fee issue is included in a broader House bill about school regulations. A similar suite of Senate bills does not include such a provision.
ON THE FAST TRACK
Addressing a top priority of Speaker Paul Renner, the House on Tuesday will consider a bill that would prevent minors under age 16 from creating social-media accounts
The bill, in part, also would require social-media platforms to terminate existing accounts that are “reasonably known” by the platforms to be held by minors younger than 16 and would allow parents to request that minors’ accounts be terminated.
Renner, R-Palm Coast, and other supporters of the bill (HB 1) contend that social media harms such things as children’s mental health.
But Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, and NetChoice, a tech-industry group, have argued the measure could be unconstitutional and create data-privacy concerns.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The Florida Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a wide-ranging plan that President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and other supporters tout as a strategy to expand health-care access as the state’s population continues to grow.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I think we should be fostering communities of inclusion, and I think this bill is moving us backwards and not forwards.” — Rep. Lindsay Cross, D-St. Petersburg, referring to a bill (HB 901) that would restrict the types of flags that can be displayed at government buildings and schools.