Tallahassee, FL - A politically charged bill that would give Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration the power to randomly audit private businesses to ensure they are not hiring undocumented workers is heading to the Florida House, where it will face a hesitant speaker.
The Senate voted 22-18 on Monday to approve the proposal (SB 664), which was negotiated with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office and would require all private businesses to verify applicants’ legal eligibility through the E-Verify system or what is known as the “I-9” form, two methods used by the federal government to verify workers’ identities.
House Speaker Jose Oliva, however, said Saturday he has “tremendous concern” about a provision in the Senate bill that would give the DeSantis administration the authority to audit private businesses who decide to not use E-Verify.
“We are giving the agency the random ability to show up and do an audit, something about that doesn’t say American to me,” Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, told reporters.
Oliva’s criticism of the immigration proposal --- a top priority of the governor --- is a sign that the bill could face a bumpy ride in the final days of the legislative session, which is scheduled to end Friday but is expected to run overtime.
The House has its own version of the bill (HB 1265), which lacks the executive branch’s additional power to police private businesses.
The House and Senate bills are identical in that both propose a significant expansion to the state’s use of E-Verify. Both bills would require all public employers --- such as local school districts, public universities and state agencies --- and their contractors to register with and use the E-Verify system.
DeSantis, who made an E-Verify mandate a cornerstone of his 2018 run for governor, has made clear to the Republican-dominated Legislature that he wants to sign an E-Verify bill this year.
The governor’s support for E-Verify gave new impetus to the issue, which in past years went nowhere after fierce opposition from agriculture, construction and tourism interests, some of whom include major GOP donors.
Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who is sponsoring the Senate proposal, acknowledged the tricky balance in getting the bill passed in the Senate.
“I realize it’s a political issue that divides us at times over tangential, unrelated matters, but as far as the four corners of this piece of legislation is concerned, my opinion is that it is not really that hard,” Lee said.
Senators had briefly weighed a carve-out for the agriculture industry, a provision that was quickly plucked from the bill after it drew pushback from Oliva. Lee said the powerful industry prefers the language offered in the current version of the bill.
“I know there’s been some criticism about the inconvenience for businesses. I’ve been particularly empathetic as we’ve worked through this process to the agriculture industry because I know they have very unique issues of trying to compete with foreign markets,” Lee told senators on Monday.
Under the Senate proposal, private businesses that opt-out of using E-Verify would need to keep a three-year record of all documents used by applicants when filling out a form “I-9”, which private businesses are already required to use to verify a worker’s legal eligibility.
Furthermore, the Senate would give the Department of Economic Opportunity the power to suspend the licenses of Florida businesses if they do not use one of the options.
The state agency also would be allowed to impose $500 fines on non-compliant businesses and would be required to contact the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if a citizen files a “substantiated” complaint regarding an employer hiring undocumented workers.
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, said Monday he worries the bill goes beyond an E-Verify mandate by requiring the state to contact federal immigration enforcement about business disputes.
“It’s basically a filter to make DEO effectively call ICE as many times a day somebody is willing to fill out this form saying they suspect there is an unauthorized worker,” Rodriguez said.
Lee’s bill would steer $2.6 million in funding for the 2020-2021 fiscal year to the state agency to allow it to hire more workers to enforce the proposed legislation.
House Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, said that as of Saturday, there have been no budget negotiations on the $2.6 million for the agency, adding that policy issues need to be hashed out first.
“We hear concerns from our members, from constituents, about what the final products look like and what we can pass in our chambers, quite frankly,” Cummings said Saturday.
“I don’t think it is the funding piece that is the sticking point,” he added.