Podcast: Discussing Legislation with Kimberly Case and Beth Vecchioli
In the fourth episode of our "Florida Capital Conversations" podcast series, Senior Policy Advisors Kimberly Case and Beth Vecchioli offer insights on the Florida Legislature. They provide key information regarding the upcoming session and dive deep on top issues including redistricting, the budget, condo reform, property insurance and consumer privacy protection.
This Tallahassee-based podcast series takes a look at the many different aspects of state and local government through the lens of experienced legal professionals. Hosted by attorneys Nate Adams and Mia McKown, these candid conversations offer a seat at the table to everyone who listens.
Nate Adams: Welcome to our Florida Capital Conversations podcast series. Today, our subject is the Florida Legislature, and our guests are Kim Case and Beth Vecchioli. My name is Nathan Adams, my co-host is Mia McKown. We are so pleased that you have joined us today to consider another important issue associated with state government affecting the business community and our daily lives as Floridians. There are none better than Kim and Beth to kick off our discussion. So let me begin with a very basic question. When does the Florida Legislature session start?
The Basics: When Does Session Start and Who Are the Main Players?
Beth Vecchioli: Well, thanks, Nate. It's good to be with you guys this afternoon. As you may know, interim committee meetings have already started. They started the week of September 20th, and they will continue to meet several weeks in October, a week in November and then a week in December before the actual regular session starts on January 11th. And it's, of course, the 60 days session and it finishes up on March 11th. And this session will be much different from last year because we were dealing with a lot of COVID issues last year in terms of large gatherings, and so the public wasn't really allowed to be in the capital. In some cases, we could not testify in person. So this year is going to be much like the years we remember from the past. The Capitol will be open to the public. And so hopefully it'll resume regular normal session like we're used to in the past.
Mia McKown: Yeah, this has really created probably some interesting caveats for government in the sunshine with COVID, and that's a whole other podcast that we could talk about on that aspect. I grew up in the legislative process. My dad lobbied, and one of the things he always said I could hear him explaining to his members is that there are two things you don't want to see. You don't want to see how they make sausage, and you don't want to see how they make laws at times. And so, you know, creating kind of organization to the madness and the chaos, you know, how does that happen? Who are the presiding officers and legislative leaders that kind of guide the chaos in this process?
Kimberly Case: Sure, absolutely. We've got some really good people in leadership. Wilton Simpson is the current Senate president. This will be his second session as president.
Mia McKown: Kim, is that normal for them to serve two years or one year?
Kimberly Case: Yes, it's a two-year term. So he's in his second year as Senate president, and he's also just announced that he's running for Ag Commissioner of Florida. And then the person who's going to come after him is Senator Kathleen Passidomo. She's the President Designate, and her term will start in November of 2022. And then in the House, we have Chris Sprowls. He's the current House speaker and then Representative Paul Renner is the Speaker Designate, and his term will start in November of 2022 as well.
Mia McKown: Who decides who the leaders are going to be? Are they voted on by the different bodies, the different chambers?
Kimberly Case: Yes. Each chamber has those determinations and it's by vote and the party that has the most, that has the majority, that's in power - that will be the Speaker and the President. And then right now, you have the Democrats who are in the minority party, and so there is a Democratic leader in each chamber as well.
Mia McKown: Got it.
Key Issue: Redistricting
Nate Adams: Kim and Beth, based on what you're hearing, what do you think the top issues of the 2022 session are going to be?
Kimberly Case: Sure. I think there are three issues that immediately come to my mind. Redistricting, the budget and condo reform. So let's start with redistricting. Once every 10 years, the Legislature is tasked with redrawing political boundaries of districts based on updated census data. Because of Florida's population growth this year, the Legislature will get to draw a new congressional seat, along with redrawing all the existing congressional and state legislative maps. The Legislature just recently released new rules and disclosures that will be required as each chamber is trying the new maps and the purpose of those new rules and new rules and disclosures will be to try to avoid the partisan gerrymandering that often can come up.
Mia McKown: What is gerrymandering?
Kimberly Case: That's the allegation, and Nate you might want to take this, but that's the allegation that there are partisan reasons that go into how the different maps are drawn,.
Mia McKown: So trying to like give an edge to one particular candidate or party, the way you draw the lines to try to get an advantage?
Kimberly Case: Exactly. So how those seats are drawn will actually have a long term impact on which party remains in power in Tallahassee. And it can also shift the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives. So one of the things that's always fun to see and it usually only happens every 10 years, is we'll see a lot of members of Congress working the halls going back and forth in the Capitol this year because it's that time, it's redistricting for both congressional as well as the Legislature.
How those seats are drawn will actually have a long term impact on which party remains in power in Tallahassee. And it can also shift the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Top Issue: The Budget
Kimberly Case: Another big issue is the budget. Florida's economy is bouncing back in spite of all the challenges that we faced with COVID-19. We've seen unemployment rates fall to about five percent in August, and the tourism sector has rebounded, with more than 31 million tourists visiting between April and June of this year, and the overall economic growth is expected to be around 5.3 percent. That matters because our economic recovery has had a positive impact on Florida revenue collection. Those collections are about $2.6 billion more than originally projected, which bodes well as the Legislature crafts the budget for next year. There's also approximately six billion in unspent federal stimulus money, and that can be used to fill holes or fund priorities. Last year's budget totaled $101 billion, and I expect we'll see a similar number this year.
Mia McKown: Hey, Kim, I know when we're talking about the budget and the different revenue sources that come, Florida, I think, is a little bit different from other states. How does Florida generate their revenue that our government then spends?
Kimberly Case: Sure. Unlike other states, we are dependent upon our tourism industry, service industry associated with it. So, the majority of those revenues that are collected come from sales tax and property taxes.
Mia McKown: So when we had a year like COVID, where travel was restricted, that could have a significant impact on Florida's revenue and the state budget. Correct?
Kimberly Case: Correct. And it definitely had there was definitely an impact that was negative. But I think what you saw, obviously from the Governor and from his leadership is he wanted to not see the type of restrictions that you had in say California and New York. And he wanted to make sure that we could get businesses and people back to normal in Florida as much as possible. And that's why I think we're seeing the uptick in the economy, unemployment rates as well as the overall economic growth.
Mia McKown: And you mentioned it's sales tax and property taxes. I didn't hear you mention income tax. Florida does not collect state income tax from folks.
Kimberly Case: Correct, it's one of the additional advantages to living in the Sunshine State.
Mia McKown: You know, we hear so much on the federal level, right about debt spending and how much they're in debt. Is Florida different from the feds as far as how they do their budgeting? Can they just spend forever or do they have to make adjustments and actually balance a budget?
Kimberly Case: No. Like families, they have to balance the budget. There's no deficit spending, they don't print money, so they have to tighten up their belt when revenues are less and prioritize. Absolutely.
Mia McKown: Got it.
Top Issue: Condo Reform Following the Surfside Collapse
Kimberly Case: The other issue that came to mind was that, we were all stunned by the horrific images of the collapsed condo in Surfside this summer. I think 98 people lost their lives. While investigators are still trying to determine the reasons for the collapse, I think you will see legislation brought forward this session that implements some policy recommendations from the Florida Bar's, Condominium Law and Policy on Life Safety Task Force. The task force is currently looking at things like how often inspections are performed. I think currently condos have to be re-inspected every 40 years, and how condo associations maintain reserves and handle repairs. Clearly, leadership does not want to see another Surfside tragedy. So I think we'll see some reforms pass the Legislature this session.
Mia McKown: I know, because you and I have talked about this before as it relates to property insurance, I know after the big hurricanes that we've had, they do task force and things of that nature. How long has it been since they looked at the building code, because I'm assuming those are going to be some of the things like Kim was mentioning inspections and things like that, I mean, it's been a while, probably since that type of review was done. Is that correct or am I wrong? Like looking at the building code, the a number of inspections, I mean, is that something that's ongoing or is this something new that we're doing with this task force that hopefully will make some corrections? You have any thoughts on that?
Beth Vecchioli: Well, so I would say, the building code, you know, various parts of it have been opened over the last 20 years and revised mostly to deal with inspections and also quality of construction. And it's usually as a result of, say, a category four or five hurricane hitting the state and then looking at the massive damage that is done to people's homes and other structures and then trying to figure out how to change the building code to prevent some of that damage. And so while I don't know off top of my head if any of those issues, I doubt that when it comes to constructing condos, there have been that many revisions to the building code in the last 20 years. But, I would imagine that's one of the things we might see this year as they deal with the Surfside tragedy.
I doubt that when it comes to constructing condos, there have been that many revisions to the building code in the last 20 years. But, I would imagine that's one of the things we might see this year as they deal with the Surfside tragedy.
Mia McKown: Because it was an older building as well, I think. So to Kim's point with the task force - Kim, I would think too, looking at how they I mean, because I would think we have a lot of older buildings throughout the state of Florida and condos in particular, how those are inspected, making sure that they're staying, you know, staying sound and safe, would be something that I would expect to see out of this task force. Is that something that you're expecting, Kim?
Kimberly Case: Yes, absolutely.
Mia McKown: Are task forces normal? I mean, is that unique? Does the Legislature use task forces to help them form policy or to form legislation?
Kimberly Case: They can be used. In this instance. It was the Florida Bar who gathered a group of experts in condos, engineers, etc., to examine it and then they're going to make recommendations to the Legislature.
Mia McKown: Ok, that's probably helpful, I would think, to the Legislature to have some experts in the field that are helping them guide policy and pinpointing some stuff. So that'll be interesting to see what comes out with their report and what action takes place.
Top Issue: Property Insurance
Nate Adams: Beth, what about you? What are some of the other big issues that you see upcoming in this session?
Beth Vecchioli: Well, Nate, I'd like to start off with the discussion on property insurance. You know, a lot of homeowners in the state have recently been receiving either cancelation notices or non-renewal notices from their homeowners companies. In the last six months, we've had two property insurers become insolvent and taken over by the state receiver. And just on September 22nd of this year, so the first committee week of the 2022 session, the insurance commissioner gave a presentation to our Senate Banking and Insurance Committee and indicated that our property insurance market is dire right now, mostly because of litigation costs. And so I would expect that there will be many bills filed dealing with property insurance and also trying to tackle tort reform for property insurance. Another part of the property insurance space is our insurable last resort called Citizens Property Insurance Corporation. The goal of that entity is to provide insurance for people who can't find it in the admitted market. And right now, because so many property insurers are either non-renewing policies or leaving the state or unfortunately becoming insolvent, Citizen has been ballooning at their lowest point in the last many years. They were just below 500,000 policies. Right now, they're over 700,000, and the president of Citizens has indicated that it's very likely that sometime in the first quarter of next year, they will have over a million policies. That's always an indication that our admitted or voluntary property insurance market is struggling because now more and more people are winding up in Citizens, which is not a good situation because Citizens can issue and levy assessments against its policyholders and against everyone that has a homeowner's policy in the state of Florida. So I think we will definitely see some bills pertaining to property insurance. Citizens has already outlined several initiatives that they would like to roll out legislatively in order to shrink their policyholder count. So it's definitely going to be a big issue in this upcoming session.
I would expect that there will be many bills filed dealing with property insurance and also trying to tackle tort reform for property insurance.
Mia McKown: It always is. It seems like there's always some kind of issue perking between the tort reform, and I would think even though it's not necessarily related exactly to what we talked about, but with Surfside, that also impacts, you know, Florida our building and possibly what kind of laws may come out of that. That could also impact insurance as well because it's all tied up together, eventually, I would think.
Beth Vecchioli: You know, our property insurers provide insurance for condos in the state as well, so they will be. And when the tragedy occurred, that building, I believe, had I don't know, 40 different insurance policies on it. And just about every single property insurance company paid their policy limits immediately in an attempt to try and cover some of that damage and for the loss of life. So, yes, but I would imagine property insurers are going to be taking a much closer look at condos before they ensure those structures going forward.
Top Issue: Telehealth
Mia McKown: Which could create additional issues in this space that we have not even contemplated six, seven eight months ago, for sure. What other issues, Beth? I know property insurance is a big deal. What else for you, any healthcare issues?
Beth Vecchioli: Yes. I think we'll definitely see healthcare issues. Last session, there were several telehealth bills that were trying to pass. They all kind of died on the vine and never made it over the finish line last session. So I would imagine those will come back, especially because during COVID, telehealth was used universally and is still being used in some cases by some providers because people were not gathering in person together, including healthcare providers and patients. So telehealth is going to be a big deal. There are a lot of issues associated with that. There are out-of-state providers that may not be licensed in the state of Florida, and so we have to deal with those kind of issues. And so, yes, I would think telehealth would be a big issue in the healthcare space next year. Also, any lingering issues related to COVID. Last session, you may recall there was a liability protection bill that was passed by the Legislature to protect healthcare workers from liability if a patient or someone, a consumer alleged that they were exposed or contracted COVID as a result of being with a health care provider or worker. That bill, when the Legislature passed, it basically was only good for one year. And so we're coming up on the expiration of that bill. So it'll be interesting to see if the Legislature continues that for another uncertain time, given that we're really still dealing with some COVID issues.
Last session, there were several telehealth bills that were trying to pass. They all kind of died on the vine and never made it over the finish line last session. So I would imagine those will come back, especially because during COVID, telehealth was used universally.
Kimberly Case: Just to add to that, Beth, obviously we represent some healthcare professionals as well. And and as you know, as the Delta started to creep back up, they've had to suspend some procedures that are not deemed, you know, essential. And so any time you do that, there's always the risk of what does that mean for the patient and is there some liability? So I think that's really important and it was really a necessity that they stop some of those surgical procedures. But there's also some potential fallout. So I think it's really important that we have that protection in place and that it remain.
Mia McKown: And it's interesting, on that topic too, because it can ebb and flow. And I don't think we're done ebbing and flowing. I know here in Tallahassee they suspended some of those elective surgeries and now they're starting to come back up. Other counties did things differently because they may not have had the same situation going on. So I think that issue is going to be around for a while as we continue because COVID is still here and it's not going and it's certainly not going anywhere. On the telehealth issue, Beth, I deal with that as you know, I represent a lot of healthcare practitioners and practices and clinics, and they passed a telehealth bill to allow it a couple of years ago. But the devil is in the details. Even a lot of rulemaking hasn't come forward. And you touched on it where you've got out-of-state providers. I know the bill that was passed last time, there is a registration requirement, and if you're from out of state providing telehealth, then you can't have brick and mortar. So I can see there's still a lot of questions. And so usually in the process and y'all tell me if this has been your experience when they make a change like that, like to add telehealth, that's usually not the end of the legislation that for a couple of sessions after they continue to come back through and may have to address because sometimes there were unintended consequences or things that come up that they've got to address. So I think that's one thing that's kind of neat about the legislative process is it's ebb and flow and it's basically a living breathing creature.
Kimberly Case: Absolutely.
Beth Vecchioli: One of the things they were trying to add last session to the telehealth bills that failed were whether or not a provider using telehealth can actually prescribe opioids and certain controlled substances. And because there was during COVID, you can imagine doctors were not seeing patients, but patients needed some sort of controlled substance, maybe to recover from the surgery or something. That was a problem in the original telehealth bill. So there are, yes, as you pointed out, unintended consequences and it'll be fine tuned and tweaked until they get to a good product.
Mia McKown: And I do think if there's anything good that came out of COVID to some extent, the importance of telehealth and how it can work effectively and be cost efficient for the patients and for the providers, I think we learned a lot through that by the different agencies, whether it's on the federal or state level, allowing the practitioners to do that on an emergency basis. And so I think we were able to learn a lot and get some guidance from that, which hopefully can help the state to continue to craft good state legislation in this space.
I do think if there's anything good that came out of COVID to some extent, the importance of telehealth and how it can work effectively and be cost efficient for the patients and for the providers, I think we learned a lot through that by the different agencies, whether it's on the federal or state level, allowing the practitioners to do that on an emergency basis.
Top Issue: The Florida State Bird
Nate Adams: All this talk about telehealth and insurance, you know, what I'm really interested in are birds and in particular, I'm interested in mockingbirds. Can you tell us a little bit about this kerfuffle involving the Florida State bird?
Kimberly Case: Sure, happy to do that. That's one of those fun issues, frankly, that we'll enjoy watching and hearing the debate. Senator Brandis has filed a bill that removes the mockingbird as the official state bird. There are four states that have the Mockingbird, and frankly, he's outraged. It should be something that is unique to Florida. So I would say look for the pro-mockingbird coalition to spring into action to defeat the bill. Perhaps we'll see a scrub jay coalition to advocate for the passage of the bill. And you can already see the media is having fun with it. I just looked at some headlines related to the bill. Here are a few: "Feathers Fly Over State Bird," or "State Bird Battle Takes Flight" and "Out of the Nest: Lawmaker Wants State Bird Ousted." So Senator Brandis is term limited, finishing up his last session, so I think it'll be fun to watch him with that bill.
Senator Brandis has filed a bill that removes the mockingbird as the official state bird. There are four states that have the Mockingbird, and frankly, he's outraged.
Navigating the Florida Legislation Process
Nate Adams: Let me ask you two, either one of you feel free to respond, but if I'm a Floridian, I have a business, maybe I have a particular concern that I think requires legislative change. If I was interested in doing something about that, exactly what would I do?
Beth Vecchioli: Well, I would say that you would contact a lobbyist like me and Kim and talk about the issue and try and frame it and identify what the problem and solution should be. And you should do that if you want to pass the bill for the 2022 session, you should be doing that now because all of the hard work is usually done during committee weeks and preparing for committee weeks. Once we get into the 60 day session, things fly pretty quickly, so you should be forming, you know, a coalition of supporters and identifying who your antagonists might be so that you can address any issues they may raise. But now is the time to be having those discussions.
National Issues at the State Level: The Florida Heartbeat Act
Mia McKown: You know, Texas, it's gotten so much attention about their abortion law that they passed, which supposedly it might even make it to the United States Supreme Court this next session. Do you expect any emotionally charged, you know, what I would call nationally focused issues. Do you all expect anything like that to be taking place this next session? I mean, there's already a lot on the plate with redistricting and things of that nature. Are there any other hot topics, sensitive issues that might garner some national attention that you might expect to show up during the legislative session?
Kimberly Case: Sure Mia, I think one issue you already mentioned, that will garner significant media attention and generate protests will be that Texas style abortion bill that's already been filed in the Florida House. Representative Barnaby is sponsoring the Florida Heartbeat Act. As it's drafted now, it will allow abortion until detection of a heartbeat, which is about six weeks into a pregnancy. The bill does include exceptions for rape, incest, domestic violence, human trafficking. But currently, Florida law bans abortions after 24 weeks, as opposed to the six weeks which is in the legislation, except in cases of medical emergencies. I think we can expect some significant debate on the issue that will be a tough one, that both chambers will probably have to grapple with. Yes.
Mia McKown: And I'm sure that will, as you mentioned, probably garner some public attention from protesters, you know, around the Capitol, which will also be interesting to watch.
Kimberly Case: There's already some protests that are happening throughout the state about the bill. Yeah.
Mia McKown: When I saw that happened in Texas, I figured some of the other states, probably during their sessions, it wouldn't be too far behind to see how that all how all that plays out.
Prioritizing Consumer Privacy Protection in Florida
Mia McKown: Beth, I know Governor DeSantis has talked a lot about, you know, social media and tech folks and privacy issues. You know, all of our tech space and data privacy, we all deal with that, with the insurance regulators and healthcare entities that we represent and it impacts all of our daily lives. Do you think there will be anything going on in a unique way? Or is there going to be any effort to tackle some of those issues?
Beth Vecchioli: Yes, absolutely. Last session, Speaker Sprowls announced that one of his legislative priorities was to pass a consumer data privacy bill similar to what California has already done and some other states to protect a consumer's data. And in many instances, the consumer is not even aware that their data is being shared. However, as we discussed earlier, the devil's in the details and there are always unintended consequences. Last session, there was a very large coalition of all different types of businesses from all different industries that opposed the bill that Speaker Sprowls proposed because there were so many unintended consequences, and to the point where it was almost impossible to fully comply with the requirements of the bill. Additionally, the bill was not a tort reform friendly bill. It had a section in it for a private cause of action, so basically to allow a consumer to sue a company that shared the consumer's personal data. So that was one of the main reasons why the business community objected to the bill and it failed. But because it was a priority of Speaker Sprowls last year and there's been even more discussion about data privacy this year I think that we'll see that come up again and hopefully they will address some of the business community's concerns about it and we can we can pass something that is tort reform friendly, but also consumer friendly.
There's been even more discussion about data privacy this year, so I think that we'll see that come up again and hopefully they will address some of the business community's concerns about it and we can we can pass something that is tort reform friendly, but also consumer friendly.
Lifespan of Bills in the Florida Legislature
Mia McKown: It's interesting, y'all talked a lot about bills that will be filed that they died and they come back the next year. I'm just curious out of the number of bills that are filed. Do the majority of these bills pass? Do the majority of them fail? I mean, what has been y'all's experience and how that works?
Beth Vecchioli: Yeah, good question. Actually, only about a tenth of the bills that are filed pass, usually on average, there are over 3000 bills that are filed each session. And normally, 300 or less bills actually make it over the finish line. So a lot of bills are filed, but the process works because it weeds out the public policy bills that maybe you know should not pass at this time. And then we wind up with a much more improved bill and law that passes.
Mia McKown: And Kim, once the Legislature passes the bills, then it still has another stop right? Before it becomes law?
Kimberly Case: Right. After it's signed by the officers, it's presented to the governor, and then he can either allow it to become law without his signature, he can sign it into law or he can veto it. So a lot of times people think, "Oh, we passed a bill, it's done." That's just one stop. The next stop is we work on the governor's office and make sure they're clear on what the bill does, what we're asking for. Same thing with budget. Once the budget goes through, he does have line item veto authority where he can go in and zero out something for whatever reason, you know, doesn't feel it's justified to be included in the budget. So there is always work after session.
Impact of the 2022 Elections
Nate Adams: This is coming up on an important election year as well, right? So not only do we have redistricting happening this year, but we've got the 2022 elections around the corner. Sort of as our last topic for today's podcast at least. How do you think that's going to impact this session?
Kimberly Case: Well, it's an election year. So along with the legislators, you have Governor DeSantis, you have Attorney General Moody, CFO Patronus. They're all up for reelection. And then you have the Ag Commissioner Nikki Fried, who's running for governor. So each one of them will have significant policy and funding initiatives that they'll want to see pass during the legislative session. So it's going to be a highly politically charged atmosphere. It's the high stakes game for everyone involved, and it just makes it more interesting for us to navigate on behalf of our clients. And frankly, since we love the process, it's really fun to watch.
Mia McKown: It really is. And I lobbied many, many moons ago and I got to give you guys credit because I do not have the patience for it because I'm just like, to the chase. We need to just figure this out. And there's a lot of, for good reason, the dancing and the collaboration that people have to do to come to compromises on things. And I think both of you all kind of mentioned with some of the bills, you know, part of it may get passed one year, you've got to come back and redo it again and there's so much to it. If you're not familiar with the process, sometimes it often doesn't make a lot of sense. And I really appreciate y'all walking us through those issues today, and hopefully we can get you all to come back as session starts. Frankly, it's only October, so we have no idea what may come up between now and January. And so there may be some new topics, but it would be great to talk to you all again just to see how session is going and what you all are seeing and kind of predicting as we get closer to session.
Nate Adams: Yeah, I think a lot of folks in my world, they think about going to court first, and that's where I'm probably most comfortable, but the reality is that a lot can be accomplished in the legislative process and much more cost effectively than you might think. In fact, with litigation becomes more and more expensive, you know, it's definitely something that businesses and individuals have to think about because you can achieve a lot with a reasonable investment in the process that ultimately can redound not only to your own benefit, but to the benefit of others.
The reality is that a lot can be accomplished in the legislative process and much more cost effectively than you might think.
Nate Adams: So I want to thank our guests today, Beth Vecchioli and Kim Case. And I don't know about you, but I'm going to be looking for the sandpiper coalition when the debates began over the mockingbird and get behind that one. Some of our folks here today, maybe you have another bird, you want to favor. We will be interested to hear about that. Thanks to all of you, most of all, for joining us today. Please plan to join us for our next Florida Capital Conversations podcast and also to my co-host, Mia McKown, thank you for joining us. I wish everybody a great day. Take care.
Mia McKown: Thanks, everybody.