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TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 10/15/19-Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce and Tourism meeting, Tuesday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

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E-Verify sponsors eye changes to stalled proposals

Lawmakers will push the mandate for private and public employers.

A politically charged immigration bill is poised to get a makeover that sponsors hope will align the measure with the position backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican Party of Florida.

The Governor and the Florida GOP, led by Sen. Joe Gruters, are pushing a mandate for public and private employers to use E-Verify, a program that checks the legal eligibility of new workers.

Proposals currently filed by Gruters and Rep. Cord Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican, exempt private businesses. But DeSantis has made clear he does not support the exemption, and Gruters last month forced RPOF members to take a formal position on a resolution backing the Governor’s stance.

In the wake of the state party vote, Gruters and Byrd told The News Service of Florida they are preparing to make changes to their proposals. Gruters predicts the new version should get his currently stalled bill (SB 1822) a committee hearing.

“I am not positive it will be next week, but I think you’ll see in a couple of days it will be on the agenda,” Gruters said on Tuesday. “I think the goal, from my standpoint, is to put out the toughest and strongest E-Verify proposal that we can possibly get passed by the bodies and signed by the Governor.”

The E-Verify proposal is the most contentious immigration issue facing lawmakers this Legislative Session, as they head into the 2020 election cycle where President Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket.

Gruters’ recent comments make clear he wants Republicans lined up with the Governor.

“I am putting the full force and the weight of the party behind this proposal to encourage people — my colleagues — because I think (this bill) is that important to the state,” Gruters said.

Attempts to impose a mandate on all employers have long divided Florida Republicans. While E-Verify is popular among GOP base voters, it is being fiercely opposed by the state’s agriculture, tourism and construction industries, which include major Republican donors.

Yet Gruters says his goal this Session is to push the “whole package,” which would require a mandate for private and public employers, such as state agencies and county school districts. That package, he said, is currently included in a bill (SB 664) sponsored by Thonotosassa Republican Sen. Tom Lee.

Lee said at the start of this year’s Legislative Session that his bill may be a “bridge too far” for the Legislature amid fierce opposition from Florida’s powerful business lobby. But he stood by the blanket mandate for all employers.

“Everyone ought to be treated the same,” Lee said last month.

Byrd would not identify specific changes he plans to make to his E-Verify proposal (HB 1265), but said he intends to tweak the “private business provision” as early as Friday.

When asked whether he thought the Republican Party of Florida’s resolution would give the measure momentum in the Republican-dominated Legislature, Byrd offered a coy smile.

“More people weighing in on the proposal I think is beneficial,” he told the News Service in an interview Wednesday.

The first stop for Byrd’s bill would be before the House Commerce Committee, chaired by St. Cloud Republican Rep. Mike La Rosa. Through his legislative aide, La Rosa said the bill has not been heard in committee because he continues to “study” the proposal.

House Speaker José Oliva told reporters on Wednesday “there are a lot of concerns over the policy,” but said there is plenty of time left during the Legislative Session, which ends March 13, for the House to take up the measure.

Senate Judiciary Chairman David Simmons, whose committee is the first stop for the Senate’s E-Verify proposal, said he expects to hear an E-Verify bill that is “fair,” and suggested Lee’s bill would be a good start.

Simmons, however, would not say when that would be.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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