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Special lawmaking session focused on vaccine, mask rules draws near without clear start date

'The most practical thing would be to use a committee week,' Sen. Manny Diaz says
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Posted at 5:31 PM, Oct 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-26 18:18:21-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The governor's special session to crack down on vaccine and mask mandates may begin as soon as next week, though that seems unlikely due to time constraints.

It follows Gov. Ron DeSantis' contentious call last week to bring lawmakers back early ahead of the 2022 legislative session.

Officials with the Senate president's office said many of the special session specifics are still being hammered out. President Wilton Simpson, however, is pushing for the session to overlap one of November's three committee weeks.

The first is set to begin next Monday, and another follows Nov. 15-19. The last week of meetings is planned for Nov. 29-Dec. 3.

State Sen. Manny Diaz
Sen. Manny Diaz wants to use a committee week for the special session to avoid additional taxpayer costs.

State Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah Gardens, chairs the Health Policy Committee, which will likely be involved in the session. He expected it could be done in five days, much like the Seminole gaming compact in May.

"The most practical thing would be to use a committee week where we don't — there's no additional cost," Diaz said. "Legislators are already in Tallahassee."

Lawmakers in the House and Senate haven't offered the bills up for consideration yet, but we do have a list of DeSantis' priorities. They include:

  • Stripping an employer's COVID liability shield for firing unvaccinated 
  • Giving those fired for vaccine requirements jobless benefits
  • Better clarifying the Parents' Bill of Rights to enforce Florida's mask mandate ban in schools, which is currently under legal scrutiny. 

"Once you codify that into state statute, it becomes much more difficult for any kind of challenge," Diaz said. "I know that the governor tried to address that using the Parents' Bill of Rights and the executive order and it's been, you know, bounced around the court."

Senate and House leaders also mulling a withdraw from OSHA to avoid a forthcoming federal vaccine rule for businesses with 100 or more employees. The Biden administration policy is expected to require workers at those businesses to have shots or face regular testing.

Not everyone is on board. Black leaders from the capital region are now questioning the need for a special session.

Rev. Dr. RB Holmes — who chairs a statewide coronavirus task force to boost minority shot rates, said DeSantis was "better than this."

"This year — 2021 — more died from this virus than in 2020," Holmes, a Republican, said. "That's why we're here. Not to fight the governor, but to fight for righteousness."

Rev. Dr. RB Holmes speaks about his opposition to a lawmaker special session.
Rev. Dr. RB Holmes speaks about his opposition to a lawmaker special session.

Democrats also stand in opposition. Members have called the session political and that its policies would hurt the economy and people.

Even so, Republicans remain in control of the Legislature, and members have said there is an appetite for change to protect individual rights.

Florida lawmakers expect to return for the regular legislative session about two months after the special session. It begins in January of next year.