In Florida, DeSantis agenda takes center stage

There are at least five major issues lawmakers are expected to tackle when they return to session Tuesday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Florida lawmakers return to Tallahassee on Tuesday to kick off a special session that will put Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in the spotlight, just as he begins touring the country to test his message for a likely presidential campaign.

DeSantis, re-elected to a second term in November by a wide margin, has foreshadowed an aggressive agenda to remake institutions across the state. In budget proposals and public events, he has previewed substantial overhauls to the state’s education system, immigration laws and the criminal justice system.

He has endorsed proposals to curb the rights of the news media, school boards, trial lawyers and women seeking an abortion. At the same time, he has voiced support for measures to allow greater application of the death penalty and to expand the rights of firearm owners to carry guns in public.

At his side is an overwhelmingly Republican legislature, led by members who not only back his efforts to pad a presidential resume, but who have said publicly they will aid his campaign-in-waiting by reversing a law that would have required him to resign from office in order to pursue the White House.

“We kinda like our governor. The voters have spoken,” House Speaker Paul Renner (R) told Spectrum News in a recent interview previewing the legislative session. “They voted by almost 20%, over a million and a half votes, that they want this governor.”

Here are the major issues lawmakers are expected to tackle when they return to session:

Education reform: Lawmakers are poised to extend school vouchers to every student in the state by ending income requirements. Students would be allowed to apply the money, more than $7,000 a year, to private or parochial school tuition or for homeschooling costs.

The legislature will also consider major changes to Florida’s public colleges, extending DeSantis’s war on what he calls woke policies. Lawmakers have introduced measures defunding diversity, equity and inclusion programs at state colleges, eliminating subjects related to race and gender and allowing schools to review tenured faculty.

DeSantis has thrown his weight behind a bill that would make school board elections partisan and limit school board members to eight years in office, down from the current limit of 12 years. The governor has gotten involved in school board races in recent years, tangling with local leaders over Covid-related measures.

Crime and immigration: Months after Florida taxpayers paid to fly a planeload of undocumented immigrants from Texas to Massachusetts, DeSantis has asked lawmakers to end in-state tuition breaks for undocumented students. He has also called on legislators to expand the use of E-Verify, a system used to verify workers’ employment status.

The House and Senate are considering separate bills that would allow non-unanimous juries to impose death sentences, after a South Florida jury handed down a life sentence to Nikolas Cruz, the gunman who murdered 17 people at Marjory Stonemason Douglas High School in 2018.

Only one other state, Alabama, allows death sentences to be imposed in cases where juries are divided over capital punishment.

Defamation: DeSantis held a roundtable discussion last month with several conservative activists who claimed they had been defamed by the national media, casting himself as a defender of truth in the face of “massive media conglomerates.”

He and Renner have called for legislation making it easier for people to sue news outlets. Legislation introduced by state Rep. Alex Andrade (R), a close DeSantis ally, would allow public figures to sue media companies for defamation without having to prove actual malice, a legal standard in place for nearly 60 years.

Andrade also introduced legislation that would make any blogger writing about an elected official subject to registration and reporting requirements. That bill does not apply to traditional news media; it would require bloggers to file reports with the Office of Legislative Services or the Commission on Ethics within five days of writing a post, subject to a fine of up to $35,000 plus court costs.

Housing: Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo (R) has made affordable housing a cornerstone of her agenda this year. A bill before the Senate would provide significant incentives to developers to build affordable units, while barring local governments from imposing rent controls.

Culture wars: Republican lawmakers are advancing a measure to allow gun owners to carry firearms without obtaining a state license. DeSantis has also called for a permanent sales tax exemption for gas stoves, after conservative media attacked a Biden administration official who said in January that the Consumer Product Safety Commission could consider banning stoves over health concerns.

GOP leaders also say they are considering new measures to limit abortions, which are currently legal until 15 weeks into a pregnancy, though details of what restrictions are afoot are scant.

“Life begins at conception. That’s what I believe,” Renner said in the interview with Spectrum News. “Is that practically possible? Probably not right now.”