It’s an even-numbered year, so the Legislative Session is starting this week. Because it also started in January in 2012, 2016 and 2018, it may seem routine by now. But it hasn’t always been that way.
For decades, the Legislature convened every year in March, except for once every decade to correspond with the Census to draw new Congressional and legislative districts. But lately, it’s been meeting in January in even-numbered years. And businesses in Tallahassee are suffering from the change.
When the state lawmakers go into Session impacts the local economy in Tallahassee, so business owners keep a close eye on their comings and goings. And lawmakers attract plenty of other visitors to the state Capitol, including lobbyists, community activists and special interest groups.
Sue Dick, president of the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce, said businesses benefitting most from the government activity include restaurants, hotels, dry cleaners and caterers.
The State Constitution dictates Regular Session of the Legislature must begin on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March in odd-numbered years.
But it leaves it to state lawmakers to decide the date for even-numbered years — or the regular Session must begin on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March. For many years, the legislature never permanently fixed the date, so every year session started in March.
That meant the first few months of every year were filled with committee meetings, thus extending the amount of time there’s bustle at the State Capitol.
Then lawmakers passed legislation to require the 2012, 2016, 2018 and 2020 regular Legislative Sessions begin in January.
Analysis on HB 7045, which set the date for the 2020 Legislative Session, done by the Senate Rules Committee staff found no fiscal impact on local government. The bill was sponsored by now Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez and passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate.
But a pattern has emerged in the years since the dates have started alternated between March and January, said Kerri Post, executive director of Visit Tallahassee.
Post said they’ve haven’t done an impact study on how the January start of Session affects areas businesses. But she said all of their tourism indicators such as hotel occupancy and the number of visitors appear to show there’s a weaker economic impact to the Tallahassee area when it convenes at the beginning of the year.
Post said that their tourism indicators show economic activity for a March-April Legislative Session is 10-15% higher, compared with a January start date.
“The March-April session is a stronger economic driver for the community,” she said.
The activity of state lawmakers at the Capitol is one of the main draws for visitors to Tallahassee during that 60-day period, said Post.
“Session is certainly, undoubtedly one of the busiest times of year, bringing in thousands of visitors and tens of millions of dollars to our community,” she said.
Dick said Tallahassee business owners prefer the March start. She added that one reason is that fewer people seem to attend the committee meetings held late in the prior year than in the few months directly before Session starts.
Post opined that perhaps one reason January starts are less helpful to local businesses is that activities are less condensed. Committee meetings for this year’s Legislative Session began in September and ran through December.
“That it’s spread over a broader period of time is probably part of it,” she said. “You don’t have the momentum. And certainly, the holidays are a factor for travel.”
Supporters of moving Session to January in even-number years argue it’s more convenient to make it through Session without having to recess to celebrate Easter and Passover. They also say that it helps state agencies and universities get a leg up on finalizing their annual budgets.