In Florida legislative session, a chance for DeSantis to check off his wish list
By Patricia Mazzei
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has made it his political mission to, as he likes to say, put points on the board.
He is about to run up the score.
Since his landslide reelection victory, the emboldened Republican governor has proposed or endorsed policy after policy that has enthralled his supporters and alarmed his detractors: Allow Floridians to carry concealed weapons without a permit or training. Ban diversity and equity programs at public universities. Expand school vouchers. Allow a death sentence without a unanimous jury. Make it easier to sue the news media. Further restrict abortion.
Most — and perhaps all — of DeSantis’ wishes will likely soon be granted by the Republican-held state Legislature, giving him a broader platform from which to launch a widely expected 2024 presidential campaign. Before the annual session, scheduled to begin Tuesday and last 60 days, Republican lawmakers have given every indication that they will be guided by whatever the governor wants.
“We’re going to get his agenda across the finish line,” Kathleen Passidomo, the Republican Senate president, said last month.
DeSantis has not been shy about using his power; last year he redrew congressional districts to give Republicans an even bigger advantage in the state. And his approach of picking high-profile fights has turned Florida into a frenzied culture-war battleground, where even political insiders struggle to keep up with the dizzying array of sweeping policy developments.
DeSantis already called lawmakers into a special session in February to address problems with laws they had previously passed at his behest — chiefly a 2022 budget provision that allowed him to spend $12 million to transport unauthorized migrants out of Florida. Instead, the DeSantis administration flew 48 Venezuelan migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts last September, prompting a lawsuit.
During the special session, lawmakers repealed that language, allowing the DeSantis administration to transport migrants from anywhere in the United States. DeSantis has requested another $12 million for the contentious program, which fits neatly with his frequent criticism of the Biden administration for allowing certain categories of unauthorized migrants into the country to await asylum hearings.
He has also requested $31 million and 27 new positions for the state’s Office of Election Crimes and Security, which he created last year to investigate election fraud. DeSantis announced 20 arrests by the office in August, but shortly thereafter, judges dropped charges against several of the defendants.
To give DeSantis a leg up in court, lawmakers gave statewide prosecutors — who, unlike local ones, work for the state attorney general, a Republican ally of DeSantis — the explicit authority to bring forward voting-related crimes.
Criticism of DeSantis has been fierce, with civil rights leaders demonstrating against actions they see as divisive and rooted in racism, students protesting what they consider political meddling in their education, and even some Republican lawmakers privately objecting to being stifled by the governor’s consolidation of power.
Democrats have characterized DeSantis’ priorities as solutions in search of problems, intended to impress the national Republican base — while issues they describe as more genuinely pressing, such as the increasingly unaffordable cost of living in Florida, get short shrift.
“It’s all electoral politics, and it’s all about the Republicans leading the state and who they are and who they have become,” said state Sen. Shevrin D. Jones, D-Miami Gardens, who is the first openly gay man to serve in the chamber and its first LGBTQ Black member.
But the opposition to DeSantis has not been very effective. With little Democratic organization, spending or turnout, the governor won by a resounding 19 percentage points in November, ushering in Republican supermajorities in the state House of Representatives and state Senate that were in part built off DeSantis’ endorsements, fundraising and campaigning.
Tending to the legislative session buys DeSantis time to test the waters before announcing a run for president — which, if it happens, is not likely until perhaps May or June. Still, he has recently fueled speculation by crisscrossing the country to give campaign-style speeches and planning stops in the early presidential primary states of Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire.
Last week, he published his second book, titled “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Survival.” Public opinion polls suggest that Republican primary voters are divided in their support between DeSantis and former President Donald Trump.
At a book tour stop near Miami on Wednesday, DeSantis mentioned some of his high-profile proposals that will be debated in the upcoming session, including some to address the increasing cost of living in the state, such as one that would create a permanent tax break on diapers and other baby supplies and a one-year tax exemption on pet food. The mention of that bill drew an approving “aww” from the crowd.
“We have an opportunity to tackle more issues in a short period of time than even we were able to do in any of our four years so far,” DeSantis said. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Emerging from the session in May with a slew of new laws to promote to his Republican base will undoubtedly help a DeSantis presidential campaign, should it come.
David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from the Tampa area, said DeSantis’ legislative goals may pose “zero risk” for him in a presidential primary but could prove to be a tougher sell to more moderate voters in a general election.
“There’s always a disconnect between primaries and generals for both parties, but recent lessons from the last three cycles suggest that Republicans can go too far,” said Jolly, who is now registered without party affiliation.
Not all legislation has been filed yet, and more contentious proposals may come, as they often do, later in the session, giving legislative leaders more time to iron out thorny details — and leaving less time to debate them.
DeSantis, who signed a law last year banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy — down from 24 weeks, although not as strict as what many conservatives states have passed — has said he would sign further “pro-life” legislation.
But he has not specified which additional abortion restrictions he would support, reflecting the political tightrope he has to walk on the issue, given that abortion restrictions are not that popular in Florida — even if they appeal widely to his base. Anti-abortion groups are pressing him and lawmakers to pass either a full abortion ban or prohibit the procedure after about six weeks of pregnancy.
Republican legislative leaders have said an abortion bill is in the works.