Florida Legislature’s mind is on the money

State Sen. Jeff Brandes warns that an “800-pound gorilla” is going to tower over the 2021 session: The state budget, reeling from massive revenue shortfalls due to the coronavirus recession.

Local lawmakers will, of course, fight for regional priorities when the Florida Legislature reconvenes, but a Pinellas state senator warns that an “800-pound gorilla” is going to tower over the 2021 session: The state budget, reeling from massive revenue shortfalls due to the coronavirus recession.

“The difficulty with the budget will be the overriding theme,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg who represents much of Pinellas County and the beaches. “There is a variety of other issues out there, but honestly, the weight of the budget and the overall conversation regarding the budget is really the 800-pound gorilla in the legislative room.”

Brandes and Rep. Jennifer Webb, a Democrat from Gulfport who represents the south beach communities in the House, briefed members of the Barrier Islands Governmental Council, or BIG-C, last week in a virtual meeting.

Brandes said he expected the Legislature to be called back to Tallahassee for a special session on the budget crisis in January; the regular session begins in March. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a $92.2 billion budget for 2020-21 in June. Since then, economists have estimated that the state will face a $5.4 billion budget deficit over the next two years.

DeSantis has already asked state agency heads to consider ways to slash their budgets by 8.5%.

Webb noted that the Legislature has the opportunity to collect more than a billion dollars in revenue the state has left “on the table” through two actions: Collecting sales tax revenue from online retailers and entering a gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Floridians are technically responsible for paying the state’s 6% sales tax voluntarily when they buy online from out-of-state retailers who don’t collect it, but few do, and there is little enforcement. The state does require collections from online retailers with a physical presence in the state.

Webb said that move could bring in $700 million in state revenue.

Meanwhile, the state still has no contract with the Seminole Tribe on gambling. Traditionally, Florida has given the sovereign tribe exclusive rights to such games as blackjack and true slot machines — and preventing traditional parimutuel sites from offering those activities — while taking a cut of the proceeds. But the two sides have been in a yearslong stalemate, and the tribe has stopped providing payments to the state.

Webb said that could generate another $750 million.

“Even with that money, we need to be tightening our belts,” she said.

Both Brandes and Webb said a key issue the Legislature will need to address is the property insurance market. Rates could rise as much as 25% next year and another 25% the following year. And enrollment in Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the insurer of last resort for those who can’t obtain private insurance, is soaring.

“That’s traveling in the wrong direction,” said Brandes. “They are essentially the barometer of a healthy market in Florida, and as Citizens grows, we understand the market is just not healthy.”

Meanwhile, John Hendricks, mayor of Madeira Beach and a member of BIG-C, reminded the state lawmakers that beach erosion is wreaking havoc in the John’s Pass area, with severe shoaling within the popular pass.

Last year, Brandes and Webb marshaled a $1.5 million allocation for beach groin replacement in Madeira Beach through the Legislature, but DeSantis vetoed the spending.

“We need some help now,” Hendricks said. “I know everybody’s struggling. But eventually we’re going to start dropping businesses out there, and we’re going to start losing tax revenue and parking revenue, so we need to know that both of you will help us push that up the hill.”

The state lawmakers were supportive.

“We’ve been dealing with this from Tierra Verde all the way up the beaches at different times, so we have a good breadth of knowledge of how to put together the strongest argument, and we’re doing that,” Webb said.

Added Brandes: “You have our full commitment.”

Local officials will also have some help in high places: Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Republican from Palm Harbor, takes over as speaker of the Florida House, while Wilton Simpson, a Republican from Trilby, ascends to president of the Senate, giving the Tampa Bay area some serious clout.