Incoming Florida House speaker rolls out some rule changes for upcoming session
Jim Turner - News Service of Florida
November 12, 2020
TALLAHASSEE — Incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls this week rolled out rule changes for the 2021 legislative session, including allowing each lawmaker to file one more bill than in the past and attempting to prevent “frivolous” amendments on the House floor.
But Sprowls, who will formally become speaker during an organization session Tuesday, quickly drew some pushback from Democrats.
The Palm Harbor Republican pointed to a need to better manage time during floor sessions, which during past years have sometimes gone without a break from before lunch to after midnight.
As part of that, Sprowls wants the Rules Committee to set procedures to manage questions and debate about every bill, according to an outline of the proposed rules. That would include allocating time for questions and debate on bills and amendments.
“Given the amount of work that must be accomplished during the regular session, we must ensure that we make the best use of our schedule,” Sprowls wrote Monday as he released the proposed changes, which will go before the House for approval during the organization session.
Another part of the proposal seeks to halt “frivolous” bill amendments that do not offer a “technical or substantive purpose.” Such amendments would be ruled out of order.
“The House floor represents the one place that we as a body come together as the representatives of the people of this state,” Sprowls wrote. “The floor can be a place for lengthy, vigorous discussion without descending into desultory or self-aggrandizing behavior.”
But Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, noted that no definition was given of “frivolous.” He quickly said he intends to vote against the proposed changes, which he believes are an attempt “to silence the voices of Democrats.”
“Dramatically limiting floor questions on their bills & ruling amendments out-of-order they don't like is an unacceptable attack on the millions of Floridians who elected us,” Smith, who frequently debates on the House floor, said in a Twitter post. “This means FL House GOP will limit questions, answers and debate on every bill on the floor. It'll be easier to ram thru whatever they want, as quickly as they want before the public has a chance to see what they're doing. Less transparency. Less accountability. More BS.”
Odessa Democrat Jessica Harrington, who unsuccessfully ran in last week’s election in House District 64 in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, chimed in with, “Should we just change the name to the GOP Legislature with Dictator @ChrisSprowls?”
But there is likely little Democrats can do to stop Sprowls’ proposals, as the GOP picked up five seats last week to expand their majority to 78 seats in the 120-member House.
Other changes Sprowls has proposed include increasing the number of bills a member can file from six to seven; extending deadlines to file bills; allowing subcommittees to meet through the sixth week of the nine-week session, rather than the third week; and limiting proposed committee bills.
“These committee bills will be reserved for significant policy issues or required legislative housekeeping (i.e., Reviser’s Bills, Open Government Sunset Reviews),” Sprowls wrote. “The House will not be accepting routine agency packages or lobbyist-promoted bills as proposed committee bills.”
The first of five committee weeks prior to the March 2 start of session is scheduled for the week of Jan. 11.
Sprowls noted that under the traditional calendar used for bill drafting and filing, members would have had to submit their first two proposals before Jan. 11. Under Sprowls’ schedule, Jan. 19 is the deadline to submit their first two bills for drafting and Jan. 29 is the deadline for the rest of members' bills.
Another change is that appropriation bills filed by individual members could be handled on subcommittee consent agendas, rather than through what can be dozens of rapid-fire hearings that crowd out other issues from subcommittee agendas. However, in exchange for speeding up the reviews, Sprowls wants to require organizations requesting taxpayer dollars to file attestations with the Public Integrity & Elections Committee verifying “under penalty of perjury” the information in the bills is accurate.
Windshield glass repairs will remain an issue during the 2021 session as debate continues about the controversial insurance practice known as assignment of benefits.
The Florida Justice Reform Institute, which works to rein in lawsuits, made a presentation on the issue last week at the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Insurance Summit. The presentation included an updated report about contentions that auto glass firms and their lawyers are using “new schemes” in filing windshield-replacement lawsuits that “continue draining policyholders' benefits in 2020.”
William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, estimated the lawsuits have grown by 30 percent in the first six months of 2020.
“Since windshields are exempt from an auto insurance policy’s deductible requirements, the prospect of a ‘no risk’ replacement has fueled a market where auto glass vendors promise consumers a free windshield — and sometimes much more — in exchange for an assignment of benefits,” a release from the institute said.
In assignment of benefits, policyholders sign over claims to contractors who then pursue payment from insurers.
Lawmakers during the 2019 session placed restrictions on assignment of benefits for property-insurance claims and debated restrictions for windshield claims.
Opponents said the potential windshield-claim restrictions would hurt small windshield-repair businesses trying to compete with larger corporations that have arrangements with insurance companies.