Florida lawmakers expect quieter session as DeSantis focuses on campaign
So far, the Florida House has filed 695 bills ahead of session, compared to 919 last year and even more in previous years.

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times

By Ana Ceballos, Lawrence Mower, Romy Ellenbogen

Published January 12, 2024


On his political ascent, Gov. Ron DeSantis has used Florida’s annual legislative session as rocket fuel, pushing an aggressive agenda in recent years that has rewired state institutions with right-wing orthodoxy, punished critics and enthused conservatives around the country.

But with lawmakers set to reconvene in the Florida Capitol on Tuesday, and DeSantis’ fading presidential ambitions hinging on contests playing out this month more than 1,000 miles away, the two-term governor is returning to Tallahassee this week to what could be his most tamped-down legislative session yet.

While things could change quickly, more than a dozen lawmakers and consultants interviewed by the Times/Herald say they’re expecting a less explosive session than in recent years, when the GOP-controlled Legislature approved restrictions on transgender care, a six-week abortion ban, limits on what can be taught in public schools and a historic expansion on school choice, among other polarizing issues.

But a slower pace in Tallahassee, they say, is not an indication that DeSantis is losing influence over the legislative process as he struggles on the national stage. Like the governor, many Republicans say that after pushing Florida further to the right in recent years, they expect a sleepier session as the race for the Republican presidential nomination plays out.

The Florida Capitol Complex in Tallahassee. Gov. Ron DeSantis is returning to Tallahassee this week to what could be his most tamped-down legislative session yet.


“The last year was a year where I feel like we got 10 years’ worth of bills, and for us, that has been really fantastic,” said Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Lake Mary. “It’s like the dog that caught the bumper. Now what do we do?”

Unlike last year, when DeSantis rolled out a slew of contentious measures that helped generate headlines in the lead-up to his presidential campaign, this year the governor has been relatively quiet on state issues.

He has asked state lawmakers to continue paying for some of his top political priorities — including another $5 million to continue his migrant flights program and $45 million to pay teachers $3,000 to undergo civics training crafted by conservative organizations. But he has pitched no major new initiatives, and his proposed spending plan for state government suggests he intends to do less in the name of “efficiency.”

On the presidential campaign trail, DeSantis is telling voters he has already fulfilled the agenda he set for his time in the governor’s office.

“I can stand here and say, I’ve delivered on 100% of what I promised I would do,” DeSantis said at a campaign event in Scott County, Iowa, in late December.

Lawmakers are similarly signaling a slowdown in pace. By the deadline to file bills, senators had filed just over 800, well below the roughly 1,000 they file each year. In the House, which has three times as many lawmakers as in the Senate, representatives have filed even fewer bills — just 695. Last year, they filed 919, and they regularly filed more than 2,000 bills in prior years.
What insiders are expecting to do and see

In past sessions, DeSantis largely set the agenda. And for the most part, lawmakers obliged.

In the last two years alone, he has had Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate create an elections police force, restrict the teaching of race-related issues in schools and workplaces and create a program to relocate migrants to other parts of the country. Lawmakers also passed a six-week abortion ban, allowed Floridians to carry concealed guns without a permit, restricted treatment for children with gender dysphoria and gave every school-age kid vouchers or education savings accounts. They expanded restrictions on sexual orientation and gender identity discussions in K-12 schools and cracked down on Disney after the company disagreed with DeSantis.

“We’ve passed all of his priorities,” said Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who endorsed DeSantis’ opponent, former President Donald Trump, in the primary. “I don’t know if there’s anything left from the standpoint of major policy initiatives that he’s trying to tackle.”

But even if they don’t match the breakneck pace of recent years, lawmakers still expect to be busy.

“Just like a goldfish will always grow to fill the size of the tank you put them in, our ambitions for session will always grow to fill the full 60 days,” said state Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota.

So far, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, wants to pass legislation to create more doctors and nurses in Florida, and to “deregulate” public schools to put them on a level playing field with private schools. House Speaker Paul Renner, her counterpart in the House, has said he wants to regulate kids’ use of social media. Other lawmakers are proposing new regulations on the use of artificial intelligence, a rollback of child labor laws to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work more hours during the school week and penalties for college students who back “foreign terrorist organizations,” such as Hamas.

Lawmakers are also seeking to make changes to the state’s gaming laws, prompting questions about whether new casinos could come to Miami-Dade County. And they are taking steps toward regulating kratom, a controversial substance derived from the dried leaves of a tropical Southeast Asian tree that over the past decade has been tied to hundreds of deadly overdoses.

And while there are fewer politically charged issues this year compared to recent years, there are still some measures that could spark emotional debates in the state Capitol building.

Lawmakers have proposed eliminating a statewide three-day waiting period to buy a rifle or a shotgun, a move that would undo one of the changes enacted after the Parkland high school mass shooting. DeSantis was receptive to the idea when asked about it Thursday during a CNN town hall.

“You shouldn’t have to be on a mandatory waiting period. Instant checks will do the job,” he said.

Two lawmakers are also reviving DeSantis’ wish to make it easier to sue media companies for defamation. And legislators are crafting bills to reform regulations impacting condominium owners and associations.

Despite DeSantis’ mission-accomplished campaign message, Democrats — and many Floridians — say the state still has plenty of problems left to solve.

Homeowners insurance premiums haven’t gone down despite years of reforms. Auto insurance rates are among the highest in the country. Rent and housing costs are through the roof. State government has been beset by widespread vacancies. Florida needs to invest billions to renovate its prisons. And a growing number of condo owners are increasingly frustrated about state laws limiting their ability to hold condo and homeowners association boards to account.

Republicans and Democrats have filed various bills to lower premiums for some homeowners.

“Of course he’s trying to project success at the legislative level,” House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell said of DeSantis. “But let’s be honest. We know what that means. What has it done for Floridians?”

“To me, it’s like he’s used the Legislature as his vanity project for his own ambition,” Driskell added.

Trump is needling DeSantis as the governor returns to Tallahassee, with a super PAC erecting billboards along the drive from the governor’s mansion to the state Capitol building urging DeSantis to “quit the campaign and get back to work!”
New political dynamics at play

Just as the torrid pace of recent legislative sessions accompanied DeSantis’ ascendance to presidential contender, the relative placidity expected over the next two months comes as his prospects of earning the GOP’s 2024 nomination are dimming.

Virtually every national and state poll shows DeSantis trailing Trump — the primary contest’s clear front-runner — by wide margins. The upcoming Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15 are widely seen as make or break for the governor.

But legislators and lobbyists said the mood heading into Tuesday shouldn’t be misconstrued as DeSantis losing control over Florida’s Capitol.

“If anyone thinks that he’s not going to be the same Ron DeSantis, the person who is driving the conversation both in the state of Florida and nationally, they are sorely mistaken,” said Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican who is a close ally of DeSantis.

Ingoglia acknowledged that the lead-up to this session has been quieter than in recent years. That’s partially due to DeSantis splitting his time on the presidential campaign trail and Tallahassee, and also because of the timing of this year’s session, he said.

“Let’s not forget that this is an early session in an election year, and traditionally those years do not produce the same type of spotlight legislation as a normal session,” Ingoglia said.

Brian Ballard, a lobbyist who has been involved in Florida’s legislative sessions since 1986, said it would be “foolish” to think DeSantis’ influence is dwindling.

“What is happening on the presidential side is of interest, but the fact that he’s a governor with three years left — two (legislative) sessions after this — makes him incredibly powerful,” Ballard said.

For the most part, that’s because DeSantis has strong relationships with Renner and Passidomo, the two Republicans who carry the agenda in each chamber — and who largely agree with the governor’s priorities.

“I am a big believer that in the Legislature there’s probably 20 people that matter a lot, and of those 20 people, I think the governor’s relationship is strong,” Ballard said.

But one thing is likely to change: A small but loud group of Republicans who have publicly endorsed Trump in the presidential race are more willing to criticize DeSantis this session.

State Rep. Juan Porras, R-Miami, is one of them. He believes the governor’s influence over the Legislature could wane midway through the legislative session based on the governor’s performance on the national stage.

“I think he was seen as the shining star of our state and nobody could ever dare speak against him,” Porras said. “I think as time goes on, and some of these election results start coming in, I think you might see a lot more people start to break.”