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Jon Costello: Many challenges face the inevitable coronavirus Special Session

If not now, then when?

Seems like forever ago when the Florida Legislature adjourned the 2020 Session and passed a roughly $93 billion spending plan for the state. Even as the largest budget in state history took final form, nobody could fully calculate the tidal wave impact of the approaching COVID-19.

Besides its threat to the physical health of millions of Floridians, the coronavirus also has packed a potential knockout punch to our financial health, too.

This virus, the social distancing measures needed to contain it, and treatment of it all will exact a heavy toll on every community, family, industry sector and government. For organizations that aren’t completely shuttered, it will likely still cause lasting harm.

And in a state like Florida — heavily dependent on tourism and sales tax revenue — this will result in a major blockage in the flow of available tax revenue to serve the people.

Crisis yardsticks are typified by bars being largely mothballed; restaurants restricted to takeout; hotels suffering record-low occupancy, and millions confined to home. And that’s just a sampling.

We’ve never been through anything like this before. It’s going to take united, patriotic, herculean nonpartisan work to shoulder the heavy lifts necessary to save the future for our residents, businesses, jobs, communities and state.

The best thinking that resulted in the just-approved new state budget ultimately has become an exercise in futility because the revenue and growth that were expected are now severely stunted or stopped.

That $93 billion budget being sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis now seems like a hopeful work of fiction.

Inevitably, a Special Session of the Florida Legislature is likely imminent. Drastic cuts must be based on harsh new realities in this crisis-driven economic downturn. But this also provides an urgent opportunity for government affairs professionals to work with their clients to offer innovative solutions to the legislature that could effectively save money and curb the harder cuts that will otherwise come. Elected officials will have no choice but to tap reserves and cut where they can, but we need to eliminate or minimize the pain for the vital services to those most in need.

All this then presents a first-ever logistical nightmare: how to hold a Special Session in the legal sunshine when the ability to gather traditionally in committees, Senate and House chambers, and the halls of The Capitol itself is compromised by virus-necessary safe distances? How can this urgent work be done and not risk the safety of elected officials, staff, advocates that participate in the process, and the public?

This is a time for our political leaders, members of the press corps, First Amendment and open government champions, and others to meet with technological wizards — even remotely — to determine how to have an open, transparent Special Session, even if we are separated into safe Zoom-like cubicles.

It is technically possible — but is there a way to ensure it is also legal, accessible and viable?

I have spoken with many former General Counsels to presiding officers and Governors and nobody is clear on whether technology can be utilized in times of crisis like this.

If not now, then when?

Florida can surely find a way — so long as all the key stakeholders are at the virtual table. In the end, we have to find a way — because the urgent business of the people, created by this unprecedented threat, cannot afford to be delayed.

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Jon Costello, president of Capitol Strategy Group, is a Tallahassee-based Governmental Consultant and former Legislative Director for Gov. Rick Scott. In addition to running Capitol Strategy Group, Jon is a board member of the Northwest Florida Water Management District and an Adjunct Professor of Political Communication in Florida State’s Masters in American Politics and Policy program.

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