By John Kennedy, Capital Bureau | USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA, Mar 4, 2023.
TALLAHASSEE – Policy moves that may appeal to conservative voters across the country but will strike directly at Floridians are what Gov. Ron DeSantis is demanding from the Republican-controlled Legislature during the 2023 session.
But here’s a spoiler alert. GOP lawmakers are poised to give DeSantis everything he wants in advance of his soon-to-be-announced run for his party’s presidential nomination.
Lawmakers begin the two-month session Tuesday.
“Now we have supermajorities in the Legislature,” DeSantis said, pointing out the political lock Republicans have in Florida following last fall’s elections. “We have, I think, a strong mandate to implement the policies we ran on.
“And these are policies I’ve been for ever since before I became governor four years ago,” he added.
Still, it’s clear that the combative, culture warrior in DeSantis has flourished as he gained stature as governor and the Republican Party nationally began mirroring the Make America Great Again imprint of former President Donald Trump.
DeSantis, once a Trump protégé, is now his leading rival for the White House bid, polls show.
But the governor for the next two months has a platform in Tallahassee to advance laws that will stoke the attention of GOP primary voters even as they’re destined to face constitutional challenges in court, joining a host of his past initiatives.
Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, says she fears DeSantis’ Republican allies in the Legislature will provide no check on the ambitious governor.
“I don’t know if they’re afraid of DeSantis, because he’s so popular, or if they really agree with him,” she said. “I don’t think they always do, but they feel forced to go along.
“He’s a dictator in this process,” she added. “There’s not the usual give-and-take with the Legislature.”
Polsky’s view that rank-and-file Republicans are cowed by DeSantis is all wrong, said Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay.
“The hidden secret of Florida is not that the governor is great – the best governor in America. But it’s that you don’t have one person coming up with amazing conservative ideas,” Fine said. “You’ve got more than 100. You’ve got 85 Republican House members and 28 Republican senators.
“We’re a team,” Fine added. “We’re all doing it.”
Abandoning the small government approach once part of the Republican Party’s DNA, DeSantis is using his office and power to change policy across almost every sector of Florida.
In weeks leading up to the session, DeSantis already has called for lawmakers to impose strict new limits on academic freedom and hiring at Florida colleges and universities, including banning diversity and equity efforts, prohibit socially conscious investments by governments and layer state government regulations onto mostly self-regulated social media platforms.
He is demanding stricter Florida sanctions on illegal immigration and looks to break new ground in his attack on what he derides as “corporate media,” demanding legislation with the goal of getting the U.S. Supreme Court to rewrite defamation laws in place across the U.S. for almost 60 years.
Similarly, GOP lawmakers seem to sense DeSantis’ direction, embracing his push to limit lawsuits against businesses − which critics warn will harm Florida consumers − and another that will allow almost every Floridian to purchase and pack a gun.
They’ve also endorsed his attention-grabbing $2 billion in proposed tax breaks – topping last year’s record $1.2 billion.
Leaders insist they have ideas of their own
Lawmakers are touting some priorities of their own.
Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, has outlined a sweeping effort to put millions of dollars and new policy steps aimed at encouraging the construction of more affordable housing.
House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, is a driver behind a push to vastly expand the availability of all parents (ed.: regardless of income level) to use state taxpayer dollars to send their children to private schools – the biggest voucher expansion in years.
And Fine, the Palm Bay Republican, creates some distance from the notion that DeSantis this session is playing to Republican primary voters in states like Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina, which the governor plans to visit in coming weeks.
DeSantis’ presidential announcement will come after the Legislature’s scheduled finish in May, allies assure.
“Will it help him there? Probably. But the goal is to help the people of Florida,” Fine said.
One party rules
DeSantis won re-election by 19% last November, and Florida Democrats, already outnumbered in the Legislature, lost more seats. They’re facing Republican supermajorities in both the House and Senate for the first time in modern history.
The imbalance means Republicans can strictly limit debate, rule amendments out of order and further curtail the influence of Democratic critics in most procedural matters.
The once-a-decade redrawing of congressional, House and Senate boundaries last year helped Republicans gain their dominance. And Florida’s politics and population have shifted – especially since the COVID-19 pandemic – to where DeSantis’ top-down, pugilistic rule apparently is resonating with many Floridians.
A Florida Chamber of Commerce poll last month showed DeSantis with a 55% approval rating among state voters. President Joe Biden, who DeSantis is angling to square off against next year, drew 56% disapproval in the same survey.
DeSantis, though, has made plenty of enemies. Black Floridians have been a frequent focus, losing ground in redistricting and voter laws championed by the governor.
Last month, Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, led a march on Florida’s Capitol spurred by the state’s rejection of an Advanced Placement course on African-American studies. Sharpton said DeSantis had turned February into “Erase Black History Month.”
DeSantis drives the train
“There’s no mistake that Gov. DeSantis is driving the train this year, like he did last year, too,” said Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton.
“The level and intensity of red meat policies, it can’t be a coincidence that they’re all happening now,” she added. “Whether it’s more private school vouchers, no gender-affirming care, no socially conscious investing, permitless carry and anti-woke. They have one thing in common – they appeal to people outside of Florida. The governor’s national campaign is a lot of what it’s all about.”
But DeSantis’ standing also is aided by what supporters view as his competency in leading the third largest state, through hurricanes, pandemic shutdowns and the daily demands of governing.
Florida’s economy is robust; its myriad environmental challenges have gained dollars during DeSantis’ tenure; and teachers have drawn pay increases, although Florida still has a massive shortage of instructors, which some attribute, in part, to the governor’s muscling of school districts over masks and LGBTQ policies.
Republican lawmakers are aware of the attention DeSantis has drawn. And they’re ready to help him gain more.
“Gov. DeSantis is having a moment, and these kinds of political moments don’t come around often. It’s a kind of once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers (Ed.: he also represents eastern Charlotte County).
He added: “You know, everywhere I go around the country, people ask about the governor and what’s happening in Florida. So Florida, itself, is having a moment right now. It’s become sort of the center of the political universe.”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport
Image Credits: Butch Dill, AP