Legislators tout extraordinary session, put DeSantis on potential campaign launching pad

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The sun shone over the striped awnings of the Historic Capitol. Visitors lined up at the metal detectors across the plaza in the concrete tower that is Florida’s current Capitol. Lobbyists streamed in like ants to sugar. It was the final day of the legislative session, their pay day.

Four floors up in the Senate chamber, lawmakers debated the $117 billion budget. Across the rotunda, someone streamed a playlist of pop songs into the House chamber, where members were starting to gather. “Just a small town girl,’’ blasted as Rep. Josie Tomkow, a Polk City Republican, posed for pictures with a local sheriff’s deputy.

It was an ordinary end to a legislative session that was extraordinary.

In the last 60 days, the Republican Party’s legislative supermajority passed a wide-ranging agenda of polarizing proposals and engaged in culture wars, expanded the governor’s power, and set the foundation for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ launch of a presidential campaign, expected soon.

READ MORE: Florida Legislature goes big for DeSantis — with record spending — and then goes home

“I don’t think we’ve seen a six-month stretch that has ever been this productive in the history of our state — and I would put us up against any state in the modern history of our country,’’ said DeSantis at a congratulatory news conference with legislative leaders after the session adjourned Friday.

Since the launch of his book tour at the beginning of the session, DeSantis has traveled the nation promoting his record as a model for the nation, repeatedly comparing Florida to other states and concluding, as he did again on Friday, that Florida’s legislative achievements were either “the strongest,” “most ambitious” or “best” in a per capita comparison.

For Florida residents, the impact of the Legislature’s agenda on their lives will be substantial.

Access to abortions could be among the most restrictive in the nation. Gun-owning Floridians can carry concealed weapons without a permit. State universities will be barred from maintaining programs that encourage diversity, equity and inclusion. All Florida schools will be reshaped by efforts to restrict speech and LGBTQ policies, and all school-aged kids will have access to vouchers to attend private schools.

Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his assessment of the 2023 Florida legislative session, in the Cabinet room of the Capitol in Tallahassee on Friday, May 5, 2023.
Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his assessment of the 2023 Florida legislative session, in the Cabinet room of the Capitol in Tallahassee on Friday, May 5, 2023.

For parents of children with gender dysphoria, the only way to access medical care would be to leave the state, and doctors who deal with gender transitioning care could face lawsuits.

Legislators passed a record $1.3 billion in tax breaks, providing new exemptions for things like diapers and childcare, but several bills opened the door to increases in the cost of homeowners insurance and utilities. There will be a surge in development of affordable housing with the state’s record $1 billion investment, but renters will see little immediate relief in some of the most expensive housing markets in the nation.

Businesses will be shielded from liability in more circumstances and provided deeper tax breaks, but they will also be required to submit to more state oversight when hiring workers. Opportunities will be abundant for developers, real estate speculators and lawyers.

Legal challenges to legislation — and because of it — are all but certain. Republican legislators set aside at least $10 million in legal defense costs for the governor’s office and various agencies. And lawmakers guaranteed a legal battle with Walt Disney World as they passed bills to nullify development agreements with the company and impose state oversight of its privately-run monorail.

Overshadowing the session was a keen interest by the Republican-controlled Legislature to help lubricate DeSantis’ path to the presidency. The governor failed to get only two of his top priorities: a bill to make it easier to sue the news media for defamation and a proposal to repeal the in-state tuition law for undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.

The governor’s successes focused on three primary themes: bills that stoke the culture-war battles and help DeSantis in a primary challenge; bills that are the fruits of a red-state supermajority in the Legislature; and bills that consolidate DeSantis’ power and his executive authority. Along the way, lawmakers helped residents’ pocketbooks in some ways and might have hurt them in others.

For Republicans, they were filled with pride they had accomplished such a broad and deep agenda.

“This session has been a special one, a session like no other,” House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said as he gaveled the session to a close just before 11 a.m. “It felt like we passed more consequential legislation in some weeks than we would expect in an entire session.”

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, proudly touted passage of her signature legislation, the “Live Local Act,” which will inject $1 billion into housing.

“From workforce housing, to school choice, to insurer accountability, to public safety, we listened to our constituents, incorporated ideas and feedback from our communities, and made our mark with historic reforms to keep our state affordable and her people free,’’ she said.

For Democrats, it was an opportunity lost.

“One of the most disappointing parts of this session was that while we were voting on issues that no one asked for, bills that were filed to address the concerns all our constituents face such as rising property insurance costs and rising auto insurance costs were never heard in committee,” said Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, D-Parkland.

Here’s a summary:

Culture wars and prepping DeSantis’ primary path

Legislators embraced DeSantis’ approach, eschewing the limited-government philosophy of the GOP of the past and replacing it with initiatives that use state power to reject diversity and equity initiatives in schools, business and medicine and an ideology that they say is intended to “protect childhood” and make Florida a place where “woke goes to die.”

Guns: Floridians are now able to carry a concealed gun without a permit or training in Florida.

Immigration: New legislation will crack down on migrant labor, end locally funded community ID programs for undocumented residents, toughen penalties against those who transport undocumented immigrants into the state, and require most Florida hospitals to ask patients about their citizenship status.

Abortion: Florida will now ban most abortions at six weeks, with some exceptions for rape and incest. DeSantis signed the bill privately, late at night. Another bill would broadly let doctors turn patients away if a requested procedure goes against their “conscience.”

Disney retaliation: As the governor’s battle over Walt Disney World escalated, legislators sent him bills to nullify development agreements entered into by the company and impose state oversight of the monorail system. He signed one of them, SB 1604, to invalidate the previous agreements, on Friday.

Targeting China: Lawmakers placed limits on Chinese nationals owning property and assigned $25 million to help police replace Chinese aerial drones that were banned by DeSantis’ administration.

College tests: Lawmakers established an alternative to the traditional college entrance exams by allowing the Classic Learning Test, an exam focused on the “Western tradition” and largely embraced by conservatives, to be used as an option to determine Bright Futures scholarship eligibility in Florida schools.

READ MORE: Dreamers may not be able to vote, but they convinced GOP lawmakers to aid their cause

School mandates: Schools would be restricted in how students and employees use non-binary pronouns in conversation and face new limits on discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity, expanding the Parental Rights in Education law, known by critics as “don’t say gay” to cover all grades.

Bathroom mandates: People who enter bathrooms “designed for the opposite sex” in public buildings could face trespass charges if they don’t exit the bathroom when asked, based on a new bill that defines male or female as a person belonging to the sex at birth with the role of producing sperm or eggs.

Drag-queen shows: Banning organizations from allowing children at “adult live performances,” including the exposure of “prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts,” is aimed at restricting drag performances, without mentioning the word “drag.”

Shielding DeSantis’ travel records: Information about how and where the governor and other state officials go would be shielded retroactively for the first time in Florida history.

Resign to run: An elections bill that raised fines on voter-registration groups also included a carve-out to ensure DeSantis can run for president without having to resign as governor.

Digital rights: Consumers would be given the right to opt out of sharing some of their online data, which is often collected and sold by companies to advertisers to target ads to consumers online.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo remarks on the success of the 2023 legislative session in the Capitol in Tallahassee on Friday, May 5, 2023.
Senate President Kathleen Passidomo remarks on the success of the 2023 legislative session in the Capitol in Tallahassee on Friday, May 5, 2023.

Pocketbook issues

As people continued to relocate to Florida for its climate and robust job opportunities in an era of remote work, the state saw record sales-tax revenues, giving DeSantis and legislators more to work with than ever. Legislators gave bipartisan approval to a record $117 billion budget that funded nearly every item on the governor’s priority list. Lawmakers used the budget surplus to fund millions in pet projects and they also passed along savings to selective constituencies.

Vouchers: A plan to offer every K-12 school-aged child a voucher or education-savings account regardless of family income was signed into law in March. With the new expansion, the state’s voucher program is now projected to cost $2.2 billion.

Pay raises: All state workers will receive a 5% pay increase, and agencies have the ability to offer additional raises to address recruitment and retention.

Diversity penalties: Florida taxpayers could pay more when local governments pay for municipal bonds and see lower returns on government pension funds after a measure that will penalize U.S. companies that consider social and environmental issues when making investment decisions.

Insurance costs: Lawmakers did nothing to directly lower homeowners’ insurance premiums, which are the highest in the nation. But they did give state regulators new powers to investigate and fine insurers, and they did require insurers to adopt industry “best practices” for handling claims.

Tax breaks: In addition to the usual sales-tax “holidays” for school supplies and disaster-preparedness items, lawmakers made baby products — such as baby wipes, diapers, clothing, cribs, strollers — and adult hygiene products permanently exempt from sales taxes.

Housing help: For the first time, lawmakers addressed the affordable-housing crisis by assigning a record $711 million to incentivize new development. They expanded a program to offer no-interest loans and closing costs on new home purchases for many full-time employees.

Protecting landlords: Local governments would be banned from passing ordinances that protect tenants rights over landlords.

Home upgrades: Lawmakers expanded the My Safe Florida Home program, which offers up to $10,000 for home-hardening upgrades. They allowed owners of homesteaded townhomes to apply, and they raised the cap on eligible homes from $500,000 to $700,000.

Healthcare: More low-income children could see access to health insurance under a $20 million expansion, and several hundred people waiting for Medicaid services will benefit from an $80 million expansion in the program, although thousands remain on the wait list.

Pharmaceutical reform: Legislators passed a measure that attempts to remove the middleman on pharmacy purchases so that insurance companies can pass on more savings to consumers.

Motorcycle tax: In addition to making it more difficult for a motorcyclist to recover damages in a crash, legislators imposed new safety courses and fees.

Speaker of the House Paul Renner answers a question during a press conference at the close of the 2023 legislative session at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Friday, May 5, 2023.
Speaker of the House Paul Renner answers a question during a press conference at the close of the 2023 legislative session at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Friday, May 5, 2023.

Supermajorities have consequences

Republican leaders in both the House and Senate worked in tandem with DeSantis, the most socially conservative governor in recent state history, to pass proposals that special-interest groups have been seeking for years. They also did what most conservative governments have been reluctant to do in recent years — increase executive authority and expand the size of government.

State Guard: DeSantis’ fledgling Florida State Guard will be dramatically expanded, from 400 volunteers to 1,500, and its budget increased from $10 million to $109 million.

Minimum wage: Lawmakers backed away from a plan to repeal local governments’ “living wage” ordinances. Instead, they amended the law to clarify that minor-league baseball players can make less than the minimum wage in Florida.

Lawsuits: Businesses achieved a major win with a bill to impose new hurdles for lawsuits against them. The legislation will make it harder for homeowners to sue their insurance companies, limit how much someone could collect in medical expenses in negligence lawsuits, and require juries to weigh the role of criminals when determining the level of negligence.

Union restrictions: Lawmakers voted to require unions representing public employees to have at least 60% participation. The bill applies mostly to teacher unions because of an exception for unions that represent police, firefighters and correctional officers.

Death penalty: Florida will have the lowest death-penalty threshold (8-4) in the nation, joining Alabama (10-2) as the only other state that doesn’t require a unanimous jury. Florida juries will also have the option to impose the death penalty on child rapists.

Fertilizer bans: Local governments will no longer be allowed to impose rainy-season restrictions on fertilizer use. The ordinances are challenged by the fertilizer industry as ineffective, but local governments say they protect water quality in the face of red tide and blue-green algae outbreaks.

Citizen input: Citizens’ ability to challenge local development decisions will be restrained under a proposal that imposes new legal fees on groups that go to court over development decisions and lose.

School board term limits: School board members would be subject to eight-year term limits, further reducing the 12-year term limits approved by DeSantis less than a year ago.

Mary Ellen Klas: @meklas@miamiherald.com; @MaryEllenKlas