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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

DeSantis’ sway over Florida Legislature unprecedented ahead of 2024 bid

Then-Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) applauds Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as he waves at lawmakers and guests in the House chamber at the Capitol in Tallahassee following his State of the State address in March 2021.    (Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times/TNS)
By Lawrence Mower Tampa Bay Times

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — When Florida lawmakers met for their annual legislative session last year, they championed bills that led to months of headlines for Gov. Ron DeSantis about sexual orientation, abortion, immigration, voting and the teaching of the nation’s racial history.

For this year’s legislative session, which begins Tuesday, DeSantis has a preview: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Emboldened by an overwhelming reelection victory margin and the most compliant Legislature in recent memory, DeSantis is pushing lawmakers to pass the legislation conservatives have been wanting for years.

Lawmakers are preparing to advance bills sought by DeSantis that would require private companies to check their employees’ immigration status. They’re eyeing sweeping changes to limit lawsuits against businesses. They could do away with requiring permits to carry a concealed weapon. More abortion restrictions might be on tap, too, when the 60-day legislative session officially kicks off Tuesday.

It’s an agenda that’s expected to give DeSantis months of headlines — and springboard his anticipated 2024 presidential run. Some of the bills could help shore up his conservative bona fides against fellow Floridian Donald Trump, who has already announced he’s running to take back the White House, and to further endear him to deep-pocketed donors.

“I’ve never seen a governor in my lifetime with this much absolute control of the agenda in Tallahassee as Ron DeSantis,” said lobbyist Brian Ballard, who has been involved in Florida’s legislative sessions since 1986 and supports the governor.

DeSantis is coy about his presidential ambitions, but legislative leaders are prepared to pass a bill allowing him to run without having to resign. Political observers believe he’ll enter the race after the session ends in May.

Already, DeSantis is promising “the most productive session we’ve had,” aided by his 19-point reelection victory.

And the Republican supermajority Legislature has signaled that it’s along for the ride. Lawmakers in his own party have appeared reluctant to challenge him.

The goal over the next two months, according to House and Senate leaders: Get DeSantis’ priorities “across the finish line.”

Agenda of long-sought reforms

Last year’s legislative session was dominated by “culture war” bills that enraged each party’s base and left lawmakers drained.

The legislation — which included the Parental Rights in Education bill that critics called “don’t say gay” — led to months of headlines in conservative and mainstream media that helped cast DeSantis as the most viable alternative to Trump in a presidential GOP primary.

This year, DeSantis and lawmakers are looking to continue the trend — and check off several bills that failed to get traction in previous years.

DeSantis wants juries to be able to issue the death penalty even when they’re not unanimous.

The governor and lawmakers are also looking to limit liberal influences in schools and state government. A bill has been filed to end university diversity programs and courses, and lawmakers are preparing bills to prevent state pension investments that are “woke.” Legislators are also considering laws governing gender-affirming care for minors.

And when lawmakers craft their budget for the next fiscal year, it’s likely to include DeSantis’ requests for $12 million more to continue the program that sent migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. DeSantis also wants a tripling of the size of his Office of Election Crimes and Security, from 15 to 42 positions. And in a dig at President Joe Biden after an official in his administration suggested a ban on gas stoves, DeSantis wants to adopt a permanent tax break for anyone who buys one.

Perhaps his most ambitious proposal is another attempt to make good on his 2018 campaign promise requiring private employers to use the federal online system E-Verify to check that employees have entered the country legally.

In 2020, DeSantis caved after resistance from the business community and legislative leaders; he quietly signed a watered-down version of the bill into law. Late last month, he announced he would try again.

That’s one of several items on some Florida Republicans’ wish lists. Others include:

— An expansion of school vouchers to all school-age children in the state, the culmination of two decades of education reforms.

— A measure allowing Floridians to carry concealed weapons without first seeking a permit and receiving training.

— Tort reform legislation long sought by the state’s business associations.

— A bill making it easier to sue media outlets for defamation, an idea DeSantis’ office pitched last year but that no lawmakers sponsored.

“Now we have supermajorities in the Legislature,” DeSantis said. “We have, I think, a strong mandate to be able to implement the policies that we ran on.”

A changed Legislature under DeSantis

If DeSantis has a chance to pass those bills, it’s during this legislative session.

The culture in Tallahassee is far different from what it was when Republicans took control more than 20 years ago. Gone are the days when Republicans publicly debated ideas. Today, floor debate among House members is time-limited, and bills are often released in their finished form following backroom deals with Republican leaders. Committee chairpeople could block leadership bills they didn’t like. Today, they’re expected to play along.

In years past, lawmakers would push back hard against the governor, such as in 2013, when they refused to carry out then-Gov. Rick Scott’s plan to expand Medicaid coverage to more than 1 million Floridians.

Today is a different story.

Much as DeSantis has exerted control over schools, school boards, Disney, high school athletics, universities and the state police, DeSantis has thrown his weight around with the Legislature over the last four years.

He’s called them into special legislative sessions six times in 20 months. Once was to pass DeSantis’ new congressional redistricting maps after he vetoed maps proposed by legislators. It was the first time in recent memory that a governor proposed his own maps.

He endorsed Republican Senate candidates during contested primary races last year, something past governors considered an intrusion into the business of legislative leaders. In one race, he supported the opponent of incoming Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples. The move was considered to undermine only the third woman to be Senate president in the state’s history.

He’s also shown little regard for the priorities of past House speakers and Senate presidents. In June, he vetoed the top priorities of the then-House speaker and Senate president, joking about the cuts while both men flanked him on stage.

DeSantis is aware of his influence over state lawmakers, according to his book “The Courage to be Free,” released last week. In one part, he writes that his ability to veto specific projects in the state budget gave him “a source of leverage … to wield against the Legislature.”

The state’s legislative leaders in 2023, Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, consider themselves ideologically aligned with the governor.

“We have a very, very similar philosophical view of things on really every issue,” Renner said in November.

Republicans have two-thirds supermajorities in the Legislature, an advantage that allows them to further limit Democratic opposition on bills. The last two Republican legislators willing to publicly criticize their leaders’ agendas left office last year. Multiple moderate House Republicans decided not to run again last year.

DeSantis’ sway over the Legislature has not gone unnoticed.

When Luis Valdes, the Florida director for Gun Owners of America, spoke to lawmakers last month, he was upset that legislators weren’t allowing gun owners to openly carry firearms. He concluded that it must be because DeSantis didn’t want it.

“If he tells the Legislature to jump, they ask, ‘How high?’” he said.

Former lawmakers and observers have noticed the shift in Tallahassee.

Former Republican lawmaker Mike Fasano laments that legislators don’t exercise the power they used to have. But Fasano, who supports DeSantis, said the governor’s popularity makes it risky to go against him.

“A Republican in the Legislature, I’m sure, is aware of that,” Fasano said.

Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, who grew up in the legislative process thanks to her father, a big-time Tallahassee lobbyist, said the changes in the Legislature are obvious.

“This is not the same Florida Senate, Florida House, as it was when the titans were here,” Book said.

DeSantis’ culture wars have overshadowed more practical problems in Florida, such as the high costs of rent and auto and homeowners insurance, said House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa.

Passidomo has proposed broad legislation to create more affordable housing, but the governor has not endorsed the bill.

Driskell said Floridians want a pragmatist, not a populist, as governor.

“This governor has never seemed to care to know the difference.”