It has been an exciting Florida legislative session in 2020. The calendar is variable in Florida; if this were an odd-numbered year, the session would begin "the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March" (March 3, 2020); we would just be getting started. But, as it is an even-numbered year, the session began "the second Tuesday after the first Monday in January," and thus March marks the end rather than the beginning. Article III, Section 3(b), Florida Constitution.
As the session winds down for 2020, there is discussion of the budget. That bears some edification perhaps.
The Joint Rules of the Florida Legislature require that:
"A general appropriations bill shall be subject to a 72-hour public review period before a vote is taken on final passage of the bill in the form that will be presented to the Governor." Rule 2.1.
Thus, while the session is scheduled for 60 days, the actual end of the session may possibly be dictated by the process of finalizing the 2021 budget (our fiscal year starts July 1, 2020). On March 3, 2020, Center Square reported that the session might require extending to accommodate the budget process. While Friday was the goal, it appears a few more days are in store.
On March 9, 2020, Center Square reported that the budget talks were progressing, and it reiterated the prediction that this session might extend (later that day, it reported the corona virus may be complicating that process). But, it also noted that there appears to be agreement this year on a raise for state employees. This would reportedly be a "three-percent across-the-board pay raise for state workers." This is not what the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees sought (5%), but it is significant. The article notes that "since 2008":
"state workers have received two pay raises. In 2013 and 2017, those making more than $40,000 per year received $1,000 raises and those making less than $40,000 received $1,400 raises."
It is gratifying to see the potential of a significant pay raise for the state employees who strive to make this workers' compensation system effective, efficient, and timely. The Florida OJCC has some exceptional team members and this recognition of their service is welcome.
This year also looks positive regarding a long-deteriorating pay issue for JCCs. On March 9, 2020, the Florida Senate took its final vote on CS/SB 1298 (filed 12/19/19). That action laid the Senate Bill on the table, and the Senate adopted instead HB 1049 (filed 12/30/19). Since filing, these two parallel and later identical bills have traversed long paths through the committee processes. Florida is blessed with a legislative committee process that affords everyday Floridians a voice. Anyone can appear at a legislative committee meeting to voice support, opposition, or questions regarding a bill. This process is critical to open government, but with only so many minutes in a day, and so many days in a session, getting a bill heard in committee is itself sometimes a challenge.
On January 14, 2020 the session convened. These two legislative proposals were among thousands filed. And, through the efforts of The Florida Bar Workers' Compensation Section generally, and Mr. Richard Chait specifically, the bills later began to move. The Senate bill received a favorable committee vote in late January, and the House bill did likewise in early February. Those early signs of progress were heartening. Various committees thereafter discussed these bills, and they proceeded recently to the floors of the two chambers.
March 6, 2020 was an important day. The House passed HB 1049 on Second Reading and the Senate passed SB 1298 on second reading. With the challenges of a short session, and many competing legislative priorities, reaching those second reading votes was a significant achievement. Then each chamber scheduled its respective bill for Third Reading on Monday (yesterday).
Monday morning, the Senate reached this JCC topic first, and Senator Benacquisto (filling in for Senator Simmons, the sponsor of SB 1298, who was then presiding) asked to defer action on SB 1298 ("temporarily postpone"). The House later proceeded to a unanimous third reading vote in favor of HB 1049, and its action was sent to the Senate in messages. That afternoon, the Senate again called SB 1298, and Senator Simmons (the sponsor) asked to lay SB 1298 on the table, and for the Senate to instead take up HB 1049. The Senate then passed the House bill unanimously. Within seconds, my cell phone began to erupt with reactions.
CS/HB 1049 was ordered "enrolled" by the House on Monday afternoon. An "enrolled bill":
"is a bill that has passed both houses of the legislature in identical form and has been converted into an act for presentation to the Governor or Secretary of State."
Thus concludes a long and emotional legislative process. For those of us that are not involved daily, the process is daunting and often confusing.
This bill has been a long-term goal of The Florida Bar Workers' Compensation Section. Its commitment to "an increase in the salaries of Judges of Compensation Claims" has been a legislative goal, which is consistent with the primary legislative positions of The Florida Bar: "adequate funding of the state courts system." It has also long been a goal of the OJCC. Recently, not a public appearance occurs without someone asking me about the progress of this effort. It was heartwarming to see it come to conclusion yesterday.
The Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims (JCC) is a creation of statute. Chapter 440, F.S. once included a paragraph that tied JCC salaries to the Circuit Court judges. That "tie-in" was inadvertently removed from the statute in 1994. Since that tie-in was removed, the salaries of Judges of Compensation Claims have not increased commensurate with the state court judge's or with inflation. While historically JCCs earned close to the mid-point between circuit and county judges, this century their earnings have been markedly less than either. This is all explained in detail in Appendix 18 to the 2019 Annual Report of the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims.
It is believed that the effect of inflation on those earnings has led to a diminished interest in this particular government service. Over the years, vacant JCC positions have attracted ten or more applicants. However, recently, the applicants have been fewer. In some instances, an advertised vacancy recently has attracted only one applicant. This lack of interest frustrates the process, because the statute requires that the Governor select "from a list of three persons nominated." Thus, some positions have required multiple advertisements/postings to achieve a minimum for the Governor's consideration. And, there have been instances in which ultimately only three people applied.
It is hoped that the passage of HB 1049 will provide additional motivation for the best and brightest to apply to serve as a JCC. As I reflect on the years I have served, it is an honor to have been associated with some great judges. It is my hope that people of such caliber continue to apply in the future, and to seek to serve all Floridians in this critical role.
There is ample credit due for the passage of this bill. Certainly, as mentioned, Mr. Richard Chait deserves much of the credit. His long hours and tireless dedication to passage this session are particularly worthy of recognition. The Workers' Compensation Section has long advocated this amendment. This includes current Chair Glen Weiland, as well as past chairs Bill Rogner, Michael Winer, Paul Anderson, Leopoldo Garcia, Dawn Traverso, Christopher Smith, and Alan Kalinoski. Former JCC Richard Thompson also deserves significant credit for this legislative success. These leaders have remained committed, steadfast, and dedicated to a strong Florida workers' compensation adjudication process. I am grateful for their words, actions, and commitment. My congratulations upon their success this year.
In all, the 2020 legislative session is likely to be remembered by the Florida workers' compensation world. In the end, the work of many has benefited a great workers' compensation community and the workers and employers that depend upon it.