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Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and 90.7 WMFE.

The Florida Legislature may get more power in a public health emergency

masked person in hospital bed with two protected caregivers
Mongkolchon Akesin/Mongkolchon
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Under a legislative proposal, the Florida Legislature would have to approve any extensions of a public health emergency beyond the first 90 days.

A bill filed in response to the pandemic’s early lockdowns and restrictions has passed its first committee. It would give the Florida Legislature more power during public health emergencies.

The bill was filed by Rep. Joel Rudman, a physician from the heavily Republican panhandle county of Santa Rosa.

“Specifically, it will require legislative approval for any statewide public health emergency that lasts over 90 days,” he told the House Healthcare Regulation Subcommittee. “Finally, HB 1487 limits the state health officer’s ability to forcibly test, treat, or examine an individual under the public health emergency.”

Under Rudman’s bill, the Florida surgeon general could declare such an emergency for 60 days. It could be extended for 30 days with approval from the governor. After that, each 60-day extension would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

“You have no idea what the future can bring, and this bill ties the hands of everyone who wants to protect Floridians when something occurs that could be essentially lethal to the population,” said Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston. She expressed concern about calling lawmakers to Tallahassee in the midst of a health crisis.

“The whole legislature has to reconvene all their staff and everyone every 60 days, after we've already determined this is the most dangerous disease we've ever seen. It doesn't make sense,” Bartleman said.

The bill also clarifies that the Florida surgeon general does not have the authority to order people to get vaccinations.

Rep. Adam Anderson, R-Tarpon Springs, said the bill is about freedom. “I have family in New York, New Jersey, California, some of the worst states that were locked down during this last pandemic,” he said, “and I believe that if the people in this room were subject to the conditions that those people were, this would not be a debate.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered then-Surgeon General Scott Rivkees to declare a public health emergency for COVID-19 in March of 2020. It lasted over a year as the governor continued to renew it. Rudman says his bill will give more oversight to such declarations.

“I promised my constituents that if I were elected, I would make it harder for one person to ever lock down their home, their school, their office, or their church,” Rudman said. “This bill does exactly that.”

The panel approved the bill, with one Democrat joining Republicans in voting yes. The Senate version hasn’t been heard in a committee.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. Follow Gina: @hearyourthought on Twitter. Click below for Gina's full bio.