Florida Politics

Many Florida House, Senate panels not meeting, voting on legislation

The pace of pre-work for the 2016 legislative session has been slow. Some committees haven’t met at all.
The pace of pre-work for the 2016 legislative session has been slow. Some committees haven’t met at all. Tampa Bay Times

Just because the Legislature has been in town doesn’t mean they’re getting much done.

With the annual legislative session set to begin in early January, state lawmakers have spent four of the last seven weeks in Tallahassee for committee hearings, the first critical step in passing legislation and writing a state budget.

Yet in that time, more than a third of the 62 committees and subcommittees in the House and Senate have not considered any legislation.

Six have not met at all.

Among them are panels tasked with big jobs, like the House Appropriations Committee, responsible for the almost $80 billion state budget, and the Senate Judiciary Committee, which considers proposed laws about the courts, privacy and human rights, among other topics.

Such meetings are critical to the lawmaking process. Bills cannot be passed unless they have cleared at least one committee. Often, they face votes in as many as four committees in both the House and the Senate.

No committee meetings means no votes, which could mean fewer proposals on the House and Senate floor in the upcoming session.

Instead, the Legislature has spent its time on other tasks. The first committee week in September was dominated by the election of Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, as the next speaker of the House. The last three weeks, both chambers focused on what turned into a failed attempt to remake state Senate districts.

“It’s really weird,” said Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville. “I literally have not voted on a bill since I’ve been in committees.”

In a typical year, it might be normal for so few decisions to be made before Thanksgiving.

But this isn’t a typical year. Lawmakers will meet for their annual 60-day session beginning Jan. 12, nearly two months earlier than usual. And this falls on the heels of a largely unproductive session last spring, which shut down unexpectedly and killed bills that might otherwise have passed after a stalemate over healthcare funding led the House to adjourn four days before the Senate.

The accelerated calendar and the approaching holidays mean lawmakers are running out of time to craft bigger bills. Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, said as much this week to his Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds Medicaid, coverage for low-income children and mental health in the state.

“If you’re thinking about doing a deeper dive … now is the time to do it,” he said. “This is kind of the crunch time for putting those things together.”

The chairmen of these committees, however, say they have not had a reason to meet, either because not enough legislation is awaiting their approval or because most of the bills they will likely debate came to their committees last session, as well, but did not pass.

“We typically wait until we have a good queue of matters, of bills referred to us so that we can have an efficient meeting,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said. I’m not going to have a meeting with three or four bills.”

Plus, he said, the special session to redraw state Senate maps, which ended Friday, has consumed lawmakers’ attention. Some proposed boundaries for new districts would force lawmakers to compete against one another, particularly in Miami-Dade County, where Diaz de la Portilla and at least four other sitting Senators intend to seek reelection.

“This stuff is so time consuming,” he said. “Honestly, all I’ve been doing is looking at maps … I feel like a cartographer.”

Karen Woodall, a lobbyist and executive director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, said she is not surprised the Legislature has put a focus on redistricting while so many policy and budget committees have not considered legislation. But, she said, there are other factors that contribute.

“Unfortunately, it is not common for critical issues to die when legislators are fighting with each other,” Woodall said in an email response to Herald/Times questions. “I think it’s a fair observation on it being a major election year, which often means they don’t address or finally pass controversial issues.”

There are a handful of exceptions, with some bills moving quickly through committees. Proposals to allow guns on college campuses, cut taxes and reform juvenile sentencing are among those that have started to make inroads.

House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, says he’s become accustomed to the weeks set aside for committee hearings being slow during his seven years in office.

“It’s been getting worse year after year, session after session,” Pafford said. “I think the process has deteriorated to the point where not a whole lot of work gets done during committee weeks.”

To some, passing fewer bills isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

House Health and Human Services Chairman Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, says conservatives should be happy. Because lawmakers will only be in Tallahassee for two more weeks before session starts, fewer bills will likely make it out of committee.

“Many years, we’ll have a ton of bills filed,” Brodeur said. “They’re all nice, but which ones to we really need to have become law?”

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.