Gov. Ron DeSantis urges against “mass gatherings,” in Florida. But at the Capitol, the Legislature draws a crowd as it lurches toward the finish line.
TALLAHASSEE — Even as Gov. Ron DeSantis discouraged “mass gatherings” in Florida because of the spreading coronavirus Thursday, the Florida Capitol was crammed with 160 lawmakers and hundreds of staff, lobbyists and visitors for the closing days of the Legislature.
The session is scheduled officially to end Friday, but some overtime appears certain — even though lawmakers grow anxious about the virus and eager to get home to their families and district offices.
A $92 billion state budget for the year beginning July 1 is still unsettled. But lawmakers plan to put the finishing touches on the spending plan — probably by Sunday — and return Wednesday for a final vote.
The state’s constitutionally required three-day waiting period between when the budget is finished and when it can be voted on complicates the session’s end.
Still, the coronavirus, and the governor’s latest warning, looms over the session.
“I’m very worried,” said Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach. “I don’t think we should be traveling back here next week. We should finish up, but I don’t know how we get there right now.”
Coronavirus Florida: State sees largest single-day jump of COVID-19, 17 new cases announced
Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, also derided the plan to leave the Capitol and return after Tuesday’s presidential primaries. He called it “the damn stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
During a press conference at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, DeSantis said he “recommends” all Florida events involving large gatherings of crowds be canceled to prevent potential virus exposure.
He also suspended official travel for state employees for 30 days, urging state agencies to maximize remote working and telecommuting for their employees, if possible. The Legislature, however, sets its own rules and is unaffected by DeSantis’ action.
Coronavirus travel ban may strand Florida family in Paris
Amid the broadening sweep of cancellations, which included college basketball tournaments and the suspension of professional baseball, hockey and basketball contests, Florida lawmakers spent Thursday in session at the Capitol.
And despite the increasing anxiety, a portion of the day at the was purely ceremonial, with hourlong ceremonies in the House and Senate honoring outgoing House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, and Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signs into law Sirois bill allowing pharmacists to test for flu
Legislative leaders have given no indication that they’re thinking of quitting the session because of the virus. House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, and Senate President Bill Galvano, said they plan to complete action on all legislation Friday, except for the budget — then return to the Capitol for a vote on the spending plan, the lone bill lawmakers must approve each year.
Oliva, though, acknowledged late Wednesday that the spate of cancellations caused by the virus was “alarming.”
“We’re inside these chambers all day ... one wonders does (the Department of Health) know something we don’t about the level of risk? It’s of great concern,” Oliva said.
Lawmakers Thursday started putting some of the finishing touches on the budget, deal-making that Oliva said has been delayed.
An additional $25 million sought by DeSantis to help with the fight against coronavirus has been tucked into the spending plan. But lawmakers are still struggling to scale back other spending to steer an additional $300 million toward reserves, in anticipation of a budget shortfall caused by an economy cooled by the outbreak.
A Senate package of tax cuts for businesses and consumers that earlier weighed in at $231.6 million was set to be shrunk to $57.8 million, a level likely supported by the House, which also had earlier approved a big reduction.
The tax cuts now are centered more for consumers, with a back-to-school sales-tax holiday and another for hurricane preparedness purchases, as well as a slight reduction in the tax on cellphones, cable TV and streaming video.
“It’s absolutely fair to say the impact on the latest revenues by coronavirus and its impact on tourism is significant,” said Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “We will pay for that and make sure we have enough money to run the essential services of the state.”
Florida tourism took massive hits caused by the 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2008 financial collapse, both events quickly pulling lawmakers back into special sessions to slash a state budget rocked by a dramatic loss of tax collections.
“Everything is changing every day,” said House budget chief Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island.
And he acknowledged, “We may be coming back in coming weeks as we evaluate the economy and the impact to our budget.”
Mark Harper of the Daytona Beach News-Journal contributed to this report.
This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.