Senators have merged proposals rewriting emergency powers at all levels of government in the state into one bill that is now headed to the Senate floor.
With amendments approved Tuesday in the Senate Rules Committee, Sen. Danny Burgess‘ bill (SB 2006) now incorporates language from Sen. Manny Díaz‘s bill (SB 1924) to restrict local government emergency powers. That merged controversial language into Burgess’ less contentious base proposal to rework the State Emergency Management Act, including the Governor’s emergency powers and agency responsibilities during public health emergencies.
Gov. Ron DeSantis threw his support behind the package earlier this year amid his victory tour over his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Governor lifted state-level pandemic restrictions in September and attempted to limit local governments’ abilities to enforce their own pandemic policies. Schools and businesses have been open for months in the Sunshine State, and the economy is overperforming expectations.
“I think Florida’s led the way on that front, and I think we’re recognizing that and seeing the fruits of what we’ve leaned forward in the foxhole and appreciate the Governor’s leadership there,” Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican, told the committee.
Under the bill, the Legislature would have right to review and object to budget amendments the Governor makes during a state of emergency. Additionally, the Legislature could invalidate individual provisions of a state of emergency rather than the entire state of emergency itself.
Moreover, it would require the Department of Health to create a state public health emergency plan and require the Division of Emergency Management to incorporate that into its emergency plan. The division would also have to maintain a stockpile of personal protective equipment.
Local leaders could create emergency powers that last for 10 days with the option for local governments’ legislative branches to renew those orders. In the event of natural disasters prohibiting the governing panel from meeting, the emergency orders could last 30 days before renewal.
“It’s not tying the hands if the need is there in the future, but we’re operating under the assumption and presumption, which is, of course, rebuttable, that we need to make sure that we can both balance safety and the need to live,” Burgess said.
Last week, Díaz warned the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee that he might amend his measure onto Burgess’ bill. Díaz’s bill was also scheduled for a hearing in the Rules Committee on Tuesday but was postponed in favor of the merged option.
“I would ask that you give us the opportunity to continue to work with Senator Burgess as these bills now merge to strike the balance where we can have oversight and make sure that there are no overreaches in any of these orders that would deprive our residents of life and liberty and their constitutional rights,” Díaz, a Hialeah Republican, told the committee.
Florida League of Cities lobbyist Scott Dudley shared many of the concerns Democrats had over the bill, including usurping local government emergency powers.
“It’s just fraught with a lot of problems and unnecessarily ties the hands of local governments,” Dudley said.
Burgess, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response, acknowledged that he was adding a more controversial measure to his bill. Additionally, he noted that his background as a Mayor and City Councilman gives him an appreciation for local government and home rule.
“That being said, I think that it’s important that while we’re looking at the powers of the executive that it’s also important to look at the powers of local governments and political subdivisions across the state,” Burgess said.
Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer, who agreed on the right for the Legislature to review spending, said he believes local governments are best poised to respond “nimbly” in emergencies.
“I just think that this nonstop assault on home rule has got to end,” he added, clarifying that he wasn’t targeting Burgess.
Sarasota Republican Sen. Joe Gruters intended to amend the bill with a provision banning vaccine passports.
DeSantis signed an executive order last week prohibiting businesses from restricting access to their businesses to people who have been vaccinated. He urged the Legislature to approve a bill to make the concept permanent.
Burgess gave Gruters’ amendment his support as well.
“I think there’s a fever pitch right now with what to require, what not to require, while we’re in the middle of the fight,” Burgess said.
However, Gruters withdrew his amendment before the panel could approve it after senators made hushed deliberations during discussion over the amendment. There’s still time for lawmakers to add a vaccine passport provision on the floor, and the House emergency powers bill (HB 945), carried by Naples Republican Rep. Bob Rommel, still awaits its final committee hearing.
“This is a situation where we’re building the plane as we’re flying it,” Burgess said. “We certainly are open for consideration and more work probably needs to be done.”