Session heads into overtime, virus paralyzes Legislature, and Florida primary moves forward

It’s Monday, March 16, and if the avalanche of depressing developments had your head-spinning last week, take solace. You’re not alone. But while we can’t promise to stop dismal developments in the age of the coronavirus, we can put what happened in Florida’s capital city into a bit of context.

So here goes.

First, some numbers: As of Sunday evening, the Department of Health reported 100 Florida residents were diagnosed with COVID-19 in Florida, and another seven residents were diagnosed and held outside the state. To track how the cases are spreading, here’s our interactive map.

Gov. Ron DeSantis activated the emergency operations center to Level 1, purchased 2,500 test kits — enough to conduct 625,000 individual tests — accelerated the rate of testing by authorizing two testing private firms to assist state labs, and the Department of Education started training 10,000 teachers to conduct classes online.

School closings and positive test numbers are only going to get worse, of course, until the public takes seriously the warnings from public health experts that the way to stop the spread of the virus is to contain human contact.

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What pandemic? It was business as usual for most of the final week in Tallahassee as lawmakers seemed virtually unaffected by the surreal cascade of business closings and isolations prompted by the pandemic. Each morning of the final two days of session, a fog enveloped Florida’s Capitol, a meteorological metaphor for what was happening inside.

On the final days, as both the House and Senate went on recess for hours at a time, they managed to pass a $48 million tax package and a handful of priorities for the governor and leaders. They sent to the governor a bill to allow college athletes to get paid, approved the governor’s plan to raise minimum teacher pay to $47,500 and give $100 million in pay hikes for veteran teachers, and approved a measure sought by House Speaker José Oliva to expand the roles of pharmacists and some nurses to test and treat certain conditions.

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Overtime: But they didn’t finish the one bill they are required by law to pass, the state budget. House and Senate leaders met on Saturday to wrap up the $93 billion spending plan, starting the constitutionally required 72-hour waiting period. They plan to return at noon Thursday to take a final vote and adjourn in hours.

Turf battles continued to claim most of the attention in the last hours, as a standoff delayed much of the action. Oliva tried and failed to get the Senate to accept his plan to require the $25 million raised by the Miami-Dade tourism tax to pay for flood-control projects, pollution protections, seaweed cleanup and other expenses tied to water quality.

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Another fight, over certified seeds, became a feud between hemp growers and the university programs that have ramped up to produce the specialized seeds.


Oh, that virus: It wasn’t until Friday when the reality of the fast-moving virus hit and legislators scrambled to set aside $300 million in emergency funds to address the economic hit of theme park and beach closures and canceled vacation trips on the state budget. They found the savings by whittling back the tax break package from $200 million, and scaled back money in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund and Medicaid programs.

Disinfection: Virus woes did interrupt deliberations briefly on Monday, when the Florida House of Representatives got word that five legislators had recently attended conferences where people have tested positive for the coronavirus. Rep. Cary Pigman, an emergency room doctor from Avon Park, dressed in protective clothing and worked with members of the Capitol staff to wipe microphones, desktops, computers and cords of the lawmakers.

As legislators scheduled their return Friday, the threat of the spreading pandemic had some Democratic lawmakers asking legislative leaders to reconsider returning to the Capitol to avoid infecting each other. Rep. Joe Geller asked if they could vote electronically via teleconference, fearing the could “come back into what could be a large Petri dish.” Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil urged them to stay home because the budget didn’t need to be done until June 30.

Oliva responded they “must be here present in order to vote on this budget.’’ He also suggested “there’s a great deal of hysteria going on. There’s a great deal of people acting in extreme ways.”

The speaker had a different tone on Sunday. He announced that the visitor galleries will be closed to the public when lawmakers return, and there will be no traditional sine die ceremony and hanky drop to designate the close of the session. He is also “granting excused absences to any member who is showing symptoms.”

Tiffany no-show: The former CEO of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Tiffany Carr, didn’t appear before the House committee, despite 12 attempts to subpoena her. But federal prosecutors have opened an investigation into the agency and a Leon County judge a appointed a receiver and ordered the agency to be dissolved.

The saga of the domestic violence agency is not over, however, as the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee voted last Thursday to issue more subpoenas and meet over the summer to continue its investigations and recommendations.


Availability: DeSantis, who for months avoided doing a press conference with the Capitol press corps, spent the last week conducting a briefing almost daily on the state’s response, but he left it up to local governments to make the tough calls.

By Sunday, local governments started taking matters into their own hands. Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale officials announced they will close down parts of their public beaches and limit the hours of operations for bars, clubs and restaurants until further notice, to limit the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

At a press conference Sunday, DeSantis commended them for that action “as the right way to go” but suggested the state will have more to announce on Monday.

Primary election is on: “We are definitely voting,” DeSantis said Friday. “They voted during the Civil War. We’re going to vote.” Despite some changes in precinct voting locations, the presidential preference primary will continue on Tuesday as planned.

The mayor did what? Did we mention that Friday was the 13th? It was also the day former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who in 2018 came within 34,000 votes of becoming Florida’s governor, was discovered by police at a South Beach hotel room with bags of possible crystal meth and in the company of a man who appeared to have overdosed on drugs, according to a Miami Beach police report.

On Sunday, Gillum announced he will enter rehab for alcohol abuse. Miami Herald reporter David Smiley and Tampa Bay Times reporter Steve Contorno examine the rising star’s fall.

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