Florida lawmakers are again descending on Tallahassee for another regular session of the Legislature, and some First Coast delegates are at the center of what promise to be some of the year’s most contentious debates.
Here's some of the legislation with sponsors from the Jacksonville area:
Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) and Rep. Travis Cummings (R-Orange Park) are both sponsoring a bill implementing the recommendations of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry to help pay down the city’s close to $3 billion pension debt. The bill would allow the city to levy a new half-cent sales tax if its residents approve. Curry’s plan would also nix the current pension structure and swap it out for a 401k-style plan, which police and firefighters oppose.
Sen. Bradley is also sponsoring a health care cost transparency bill mandating hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers and nursing homes submit average prices for common procedures to be published in a public database. If a state consumer advocate finds the cost of an individual procedure far exceeds the average cost posted to the database, the state could fine the provider at least $2,500.
In addition to the database, Bradley’s bill would provide patients with the right to receive an itemized cost estimate before a procedure. Failure to do so would result in a $500 fine for providers. Much of the bill is based on recommendations from Gov. Rick Scott’s Commission on Healthcare and Hospital Funding to help bring down health care costs statewide. Florida hospitals oppose the legislation, calling it price capping and instead are supporting a bill filed by Rep. Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor), which doesn't include the penalty for exceeding an average price.
Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach) and Rep. Mia Jones (D-Jacksonville) are again sponsoring legislation that would regulate and allow insurance companies to cover telemedicine, the practice of using remote technology, like a webcam, to assess and treat patients. The plan has been proposed a few times before, but concerns over whether out-of-state doctors could treat Florida patients and exactly how the services should be covered by insurance have thwarted its passage.
Religious Freedom/ Gay Rights
Sen. Bean is also sponsoring the “Pastor Protection Act,” which would reiterate pastors, churches and other religious organizations can’t be compelled to perform or participate in marriages they disagree with. It's a response to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling striking down state bans on gay marriage, including Florida's, last year. Although existing religious freedom laws already give clergy the right to refuse whoever they want, Bean is seeking to strengthen that right. Gay rights advocates have called Bean's bill hateful and anti-gay.
Rep. Lake Ray (R-Jacksonville) is sponsoring a measure slowing the resettlement process for Syrian refugees. In response to the attacks on Paris and San Bernardino by the self-proclaimed Islamic State and its supporters, Ray is proposing all refugee resettlement organizations in Florida submit information to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for extra background checks.
Florida officials cannot reject Syrian refugees outright, but Ray is hoping a clause in the U.S. Constitution giving states the right to “protect themselves from imminent danger” could be used to justify the extra level of background checks.
Rep. Ray is also sponsoring legislation steering $100 million from auto tags and fees to a dedicated pot of money for port projects. The hope is that some of the money could be used to help fund the $1 billion in improvement projects and dredging JAXPORT is proposing. Every port in the state would be able to compete for the funds, much the same way cities compete for major league stadium projects now.
Rep. Reggie Fullwood (D-Jacksonville) is proposing a bill creating state standards for comprehensive, age-appropriate, science-based sex education in schools. School districts and parents would be able to opt out of the program, but Fullwood wants to replace the state's current curriculum that focuses on abstinence and sex only within a heterosexual marriage.
Rep. Fullwood is also carrying legislation that would allow more restaurants and bars in Jacksonville's Avondale and Riverside neighborhoods to serve liquor. Currently, a restaurant must have at least 200 seats in order to receive a liquor license. Fullwood’s bill would bring that number down to 100 within special entertainment zones. Smaller local restaurants say they can't compete against larger chains moving in next door.