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Brandes expects special session to deal with the budget

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Sen. Jeff BrandesA veteran Southwest Florida lawmaker is predicting that court spending priorities will escape the worst of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s expected budget vetoes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It isn’t where you find a billion dollars if you’re cutting,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg and chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Civil and Criminal Justice. “It’s not where you get the biggest chunks.”

Brandes estimates that a pandemic-related plunge in sales tax collections will force DeSantis to veto $500 million to $1 billion from the $92.2 billion budget lawmakers approved earlier this year as the pandemic was beginning to strike.

DeSantis says he is waiting for state economists to get a better handle on the economic fallout before he makes his veto decisions. Brandes expects the crisis to force lawmakers into special session before the end of the fiscal year.

“Unless the wheels just start falling off, we come back in special session before July 1, and I give that a 70-30 chance,” he said.

Brandes is confident that the courts won’t be the first place DeSantis looks to achieve savings.

Slashing a $21 million appropriation for a long-sought Second District Court of Appeal facility, the biggest single-ticket item for the courts, wouldn’t go very far toward balancing the budget, Brandes said.

And with the state recently paying $1.8 billion in state and federal unemployment benefits to more than 700,000 newly laid off workers, DeSantis will hesitate to veto brick and mortar spending, Brandes said.

“I think the governor will view that as an infrastructure project that will create jobs,” Brandes said.

Brandes wants the state to first consider locating the courthouse at a site in downtown St. Petersburg. The location is desirable because the state already owns the property, and it would be close to Stetson’s law school in an area ripe for redevelopment, Brandes said.

“You need access to hotels and a vibrant community to put it in,” Brandes said. “Lawyers need a place to stay, you need access to Class A, Class B office space to put law firms, and that’s growing in Pinellas.”

Lawmakers also agreed to spend $3.4 million to pay for the certification of 10 new trial judges. The money is earmarked for one new circuit judgeship each in the First and 14th judicial circuits, and two circuit judgeships in the Ninth Circuit.

The budget also calls for creating one new county court judgeship each in Orange and Lee counties, and four county judgeships in Hillsborough.

That spending should survive, especially now that the suspension of jury trials has created a backlog of cases, Brandes said.

“You still need new judges,” Brandes said. “Those problems don’t get better if you cut them.”

Meanwhile, if lawmakers convene a special session in June, Brandes said he will sponsor a proposal to protect business owners and health-care facilities from COVID-19 related liability.

“I think businesses will simply begin to fold if they start to get sued,” he said. “Their business liability protection may not cover them, and they’re so financially strapped now, they would not be able to sustain a lawsuit.”

Brandes said the proposal would strike a balance between protecting public safety and protecting businesses and health-care facilities from being punished for circumstances beyond their control.

The legislation would grant a “safe harbor,” for entities that comply with state guidelines, but not if they show “willful disregard” for state guidelines or commit “gross negligence,” Brandes said.

“It actually incentivizes businesses to stay within the safe harbor,” he said.

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