Legislative session begins today and will run for 60 days. Access to the capitol remains restricted. Unless testimony in person is specifically approved by the committee, the convention center nearby provides a meeting place for lobbyists and advocates who desire to watch the committee hearings and to testify via video feed. For grassroots advocates who in the past were able to walk the halls and buttonhole policymakers, their opportunities to be heard appear to be more limited.
Budget Presentations Dominated Committee Weeks
Questions remain regarding the level of attention that will be paid to children’s policy concerns. Five committee weeks spanning January and February were long on budget presentations by executive branch agency and department heads. Less time was spent on policy issues except for the high-profile ones pushed by the governor. Those were more oriented around the public protests associated with tragic events and their aftermath across the country leading up to the November elections and the fall-out from unfounded attacks on the election process itself prior to January 6. Florida surprisingly has joined in on the hysteria even though its 67 election supervisors for the tenth time since the year 2000 showed their capability to run an inclusive and fair process and vote count. The needs of Florida children and families up to this point have taken a back seat to this agenda. We encourage policy makers to raise the profile of children’s needs in the weeks ahead.
Concentration on the budget was anticipated. It is always front and center after an election when a large class of incoming legislators familiarize themselves with a $90 billion plus state funded enterprise. Overall, great angst exists about projected deficits even though the Biden administration has pledged federal support within an assistance package being pushed along in D.C. The latest thinking but always subject to change is an across-the-board 3% cut in existing budgets. This is said to allow for continuation of services while leaving room for some “new” enhancements. At this time, the enhancements being contemplated do not appear to include any deep dive into children’s needs, waiting lists for services, or obvious gaps. A 3% cut to children’s services will not keep them whole and will add to the imbalance.
Child Welfare Improvements Hotly Debated
On the policy front the hottest debate during committee weeks took place in the Senate, in the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. Two proposed bills, SB 92 by Bean (R-Jacksonville) and SB 80 by Brodeur (R-Lake Mary) are attempting to initiate improvements not only in child welfare practice but also the administration of services through the community-based care lead agencies. Bean’s bill essentially focuses on three areas: lead agency executive compensation, family finders, and kinship care navigation. A 4th component was the composition of the community alliance boards and not the boards of the lead agencies. Brodeur’s bill focuses directly on attempting to achieve placement consistency in foster care. Examples of similar cases in different jurisdictions with opposite placement outcomes were highlighted.
But the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee struggled during the committee weeks to balance comments by its members about the independence of community-based care lead agencies to conform to “local” conditions, and the more in-depth pursuit of some members to bring consistency to decisions being made in child welfare leadership, dependency court and the actions of case management contractors.
DeSantis Administrative Shakeup Complicates Child Welfare Quality Oversight
Compounding the complications of addressing policy issues was the recent decision by the DeSantis administration to shuffle agency heads on the eve of session. DCF Secretary Poppell resigned to pursue private sector opportunities; DJJ Secretary Marstiller is shifting to the Agency for Health Care Administration; and the interim Secretary of AHCA, Shevaun Harris, is moving to DCF.
Poppell during his less than two-year tenure, which is about average for executive branch department heads, was moving down the path toward centralizing quality assurance oversight of community-based care and developing metrics. His departure will complicate movement in that direction especially with the influence developed over time by the community-based care lead agencies. They have a powerful statewide association led by a former legislator, a well-connected governmental relations chief whose skills were honed in the private sector years ago, and each community-based agency employs directly or contracts with some of Florida’s best-known lobbyists.
Senate leaders who wish to initiate change also have to deal with a House of Representatives that didn’t schedule the same issues for discussion during committee weeks. Companion bills are just now being filed.
Child Booster Seat Bill Moving in the Senate
One issue other than child welfare that emerged above the water line in the Senate was the long-sought improvement to child safety booster seat policy. Senator Perry (R-Gainesville) has brought SB 380 along and it is now in its final committee of reference (Rules). The path in the House is less clear.
If you like reading our publications, we need your help to keep them coming. The Children’s Campaign is privately supported to maintain our independent voice. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation today!
This Capitol Report is brought to you by Amanda Ostrander, Karen Bonsignori, Roy Miller and Michael Sonntag.