Fourth week of Florida's legislative session sees solar incentive flare-up, voter reform frustration

GOP senators advance new election reform bill out of 1st committee
Posted at 9:18 AM, Feb 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-07 09:18:01-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida lawmakers aren't slowing down as they wrap up the fourth week of the legislative session.

The last five days saw a blown effort to get mobile sports betting on the ballot, no changes for the 15-week abortion bill and more controversial voter reform making progress.

Here's this week's recap of what happened in Tallahassee:

Florida's mobile sports betting program was put on hold last year after a federal judge ruled against the new Seminole gaming compact. Many bet a ballot initiative would change things, but the effort went bust.

Time ran out on Tuesday for the two 2022 initiatives seeking to expand gaming in the state. Efforts to add more casinos and green light mobile sports betting failed to gather enough validated signatures.

One of the groups, Florida Education Champions, blamed COVID-19 for its failure to meet the deadline.

"While pursuing our mission to add sports betting to the ballot, we ran into some serious challenges, but most of all the COVID surge decimated our operations and ability to collect in-person signatures," said a Champions spokesperson in a statement. "We will be considering all options in the months ahead to ensure that Floridians have the opportunity to bring safe and legal sports betting to the state, along with hundreds of millions of dollars annually to support public education."

Sen. Travis Hutson
Sen. Travis Hutson shares why he supports the new election reform bill.

GOP senators also advanced a new election reform bill out of its first committee. The policy, carried by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, has several provisions.

They include the following:

  • Requiring election supervisors scrub voter rolls annually instead of every two years
  • Voters will need to provide more personal info to vote-by-mail, like social security or driver's license digits 
  • Increased penalties for things like ballot harvesting
  • And the creation of an election crimes office to look at voter irregularities and alleged fraud

"This bill makes sure that we have more checks and balances," Huston said. "As I told my colleagues, you shouldn't be afraid of being too secure for your elections."

Democrats didn't like the bill, inspired by a DeSantis priority announced last year. Members said Florida's elections were already free of widespread fraud and that the bill would do more harm than good.

"I don't really understand what we are afraid of," said Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton. Are we afraid of people voting? Are we afraid of people voting by mail?"

Sen. Tina Polsky
Sen. Tina Polsky discusses why the election reform bill is not needed in Florida.

Efforts to amend Florida's bill banning abortions at 15 weeks, failed Wednesday.

Minority Leader Sen. Lauren Book offered the change, seeking exceptions for rape, incest and human trafficking. Both Senate and House versions currently offer exceptions for only fatal fetal abnormalities.

"Now we've put them on a very short clock to make those decisions," Book said. "I've drafted several different amendments, several iterations, talked to the sponsor in the Senate and the House. I'm not sure we're going to get to a place where they agree, but that doesn't mean that we don't continue to try."

The bills each face one more stop before reaching chamber floors.

Sen. Lauren Book
Sen. Lauren Book was a proponent of adding multiple exceptions to the proposed 15-week abortion ban.

Finally, solar providers were very unhappy after a House committee voted in favor of changing the incentive program that many use to install expensive solar roof panels.

HB 741 gives utilities a break on the price of excess energy bought from solar customers, making it wholesale instead of retail.

Blake Ambrester, the founder of Solar Bear LLC, warned lawmakers the bill would close his business.

"I have 225 employees, all W2," Ambrester said. "They will lose their jobs if this bill goes forward."

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Plant City, promised to keep working toward a middle ground for all parties involved.

"Being in my fifth year, I don’t think I've run one bill to the end without changes," he said. "They are doing it in other states. We need to do it here in the state of Florida, and I am committed to finding the solution."

Next week marks the fifth of the 2022 legislative session, the midway mark for the 60-day process. Lawmakers are scheduled to conclude on March 11.