Florida legislative session begins: 10 big issues to watch

The Florida Legislature begins its 60-day session with some big changes in mind.

The main priorities for this session are passing a budget and re-drawing political maps based on the census -- but an additional 3,000 bills have also been filed. While most will not become law, there are some that likely could pass.

First up: the creation of a new law enforcement agency to investigate voter fraud. While studies show it’s a rare occurrence, recent arrests in The Villages of residents accused of casting more than one ballot in the 2020 presidential election have kept light on the issue. Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to create a 52-member police force tasked with investigating voter fraud 

"If somebody brings a stack of ballots in there, stuffing them in a Dropbox, you have a place that will field these complaints," he previously said, "and will immediately be able to investigate and hold them accountable."

READ: Florida bill would allow businesses to sue local governments if ordinances lead to loss of revenue, profits

There’s also a proposal to temporarily suspend the state’s 25-cent gas tax. It’d give drivers 5 months of cheaper gas, but would cost the state $1 billion in revenue

The governor also wants to see raises in salaries for law enforcement and other state employees: 20% for new officers and 25% for existing officers. Proposals would also raise prison guard pay to at least $20 per hour.

There are also measures Democrats have dubbed culture war issues, including a restrictive Texas-style abortion ban.

MORE: Florida bill would require schools to teach benefits, risks of social media

Here are 10 big issues to watch during the session:

ABORTION: As the nation waits to see if the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, Florida Republican lawmakers could consider placing additional restrictions on abortions. Details of potential restrictions remain unclear, though GOP leaders have not signaled support for a proposal that would mirror a controversial Texas abortion law.

BUDGET: DeSantis has proposed a $99.7 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year that includes funneling money to education, the environment and pay for law-enforcement officers. Florida is flush with cash because of a huge influx of federal COVID-19 stimulus money and higher-than-expected state tax collections as the economy has recovered.

CRITICAL RACE THEORY: Appealing to his Republican base, DeSantis wants to cement in law a prohibition on teaching critical race theory in Florida classrooms. The State Board of Education approved such a rule in June, as the GOP nationally takes aim at critical race theory, which involves a premise that racism is embedded in American institutions.

EDUCATION: Lawmakers will consider a DeSantis proposal to revamp the school-accountability system, moving toward what is known as progress monitoring. The Republican-controlled Legislature also could continue years of efforts to expand school choice and will weigh a DeSantis proposal to give bonuses to public-school teachers and principals.

ELECTIONS: After lawmakers passed a controversial elections bill in April that included placing restrictions on voting by mail, DeSantis wants additional steps, such as creating a state office that would investigate election-related crimes. DeSantis also has called for increasing criminal penalties for a practice dubbed ballot "harvesting."

HEALTH CARE AND COVID-19: The COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate health care, and lawmakers will consider extending pandemic-related legal protections for hospitals, nursing homes, and other providers. DeSantis also proposed increased Medicaid funding that supporters say could help with staffing problems at nursing homes.

IMMIGRATION: DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody have criticized the Biden administration for months about border policies, and DeSantis wants lawmakers to take up a series of immigration issues. DeSantis has called for expanding a law targeting so-called "sanctuary cities" and bolstering use of the E-Verify system to check workers’ immigration status.

INSURANCE: With private insurers dropping policies and customers flooding into the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp., lawmakers will again consider making changes to the property-insurance system. Lawmakers in recent years have tried to address issues such as curbing litigation over insurance claims, but problems persist in the industry.

SCHOOL BOARDS: Republican lawmakers could take aim at county school boards after upheaval about issues such as student mask requirements during the pandemic. Legislative proposals include shifting from nonpartisan to partisan school-board elections and setting requirements for school boards to take public comments during meetings.

TAXES: Buoyed by federal stimulus money, DeSantis has proposed suspending state gasoline taxes for five months, starting July 1. The governor would use $1 billion in stimulus money to make up for lost gas-tax revenues, which go toward funding transportation projects. Lawmakers also will consider a series of sales-tax "holidays."

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The News Service of Florida contributed to this issue