Florida lawmakers opened the two-month legislative session on Tuesday ready to spend a state’s treasury awash with budget money while presenting a raft of ideas heavily overshadowed by election-year politics.
Republicans are in command of the legislature. And Governor Ron DeSantis has unwavering loyalty.
So what the governor wants, he’s likely to get as he also prepares to go before voters in November, seeking a second term as Florida’s chief executive.
“We’ve had a lot of success in the past few years, and this session just continues what we’ve been doing,” said Senator Joe Grotters, a Republican from Sarasota, who serves as the state’s Republican Party chair. “In terms of the budget, the country’s performance is very good.”
But Democrats, outnumbered in the House and Senate, argue that the state’s Republicans are out of touch with the needs of many working Florida residents struggling to deal with the faltering economy caused by two years of COVID-19 and the recent surge in cases.
They said the GOP’s priorities do not address the inequality in pay, taxes and housing that has persisted for a long time in Florida, but has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Gov. “DeSantis has a great deal of control over these lawmakers,” said House Democratic Leader Evan Jean of Dania Beach. “Whatever he wants, he will have no trouble in this house finding 78 Republicans who would jump up and say they would run it for him. But look at what he sees as priorities.”
DeSantis set an agenda that distributes pay increases to teachers, first responders and state employees — using a state cash bonus bolstered by the $3.4 billion from the US bailout, and COVID-19 relief provided by President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress. .
But DeSantis bites the hand that helps fuel Florida’s cash flow.
Under the governor, the state has sued the White House four times, over its immigration and vaccination policies, even as the $1,000 salary increase for teachers and first responders he proposed is being funded by Biden dollars.
Also, $1 billion of that federal cash will go toward another DeSantis component that wants lawmakers to approve this hearing — a 25-cents-a-gallon cut in the state’s gas tax, effective in July and spanning the next five months.
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Washington’s money isn’t being spent, the governor will fund a $500 million Florida Flexible Grant Program, to help cities and counties rebuild failed or inundated infrastructure from years of the state’s disregard for the profound effects of climate change.
No “thank you” note
But don’t expect DeSantis to send a letter of thanks to the White House and congressional Democrats, even though the bloated federal aid was approved despite the opposition of every Republican in the US House and Senate.
Besides the ongoing lawsuits against the Biden administration, DeSantis wants state lawmakers to approve new penalties for contractors and companies that help the Biden administration move immigrants from the Texas and Mexico borders.
The governor declared it part of the “war against the Biden border crisis.”
While the wording of next year’s budget does not appear to be a problem for lawmakers, they are also ready to take measures that could include a new round of abortion restrictions, more restrictions on local governments, and a new law enforcement apparatus geared toward election crimes.
Many fireworks may emerge from these discussions.
An emerging election year that will capture the focus of lawmakers.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, is a statewide candidate for Cabinet Commissioner of Agriculture, Democratic Senator in Miami, Annette Taddeo is among three prominent Democrats to challenge DeSantis, and campaign season will be on the minds of most members of the legislature.
Backed by a seemingly unlimited ability to raise campaign cash, DeSantis is also seen as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024. And while he appeals to many Florida Democrats, the governor clearly knows how to push the political buttons that capture his national attention as a The re-election campaign is taking shape.
However, as the governor presses the White House with policy proposals that might aid his political future, state lawmakers will take care of their jobs in this session.
The redistricting takes place once a decade and is sure to be a distraction during this session. The task of reshaping the state assembly, the Senate and districts of Congress to reflect the demographic changes reflected in the most recent US census will dominate most of this year’s session.
The final new maps likely won’t be approved until near the end of the session scheduled for March 11th. So that would have lawmakers run the day-to-day business of the hearing with one eye on how they’re changing the landscape of their districts — or the areas they hope to participate in.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of food fights,” Grotters said, explaining that lawmakers are looking to complete the session smoothly, and start campaigning soon.
Jane said redistricting could overwhelm the session.
He said lawmakers’ interest in redistricting is likely to go beyond efforts to address other complex issues. The rise in property insurance rates and the future of motorists’ personal injury protection coverage is often talked about about the need for repair. But legislative bandwidth may not extend that far this year.
“I think re-division takes all the oxygen out of the room,” Jen said.
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The redistricting also proved, at the Autumn Commission hearings, to be tense. Several proposed maps emerged from the House and Senate, which largely maintain the current political balance of the state in favor of the Republicans, the party that directs redistricting.
But Republicans seem intent on avoiding lengthy legal challenges to the maps they propose. As a result, Republican Party leaders have sought to downplay the importance of talking about which party can win or lose seats, based on drawing lines.
The Florida Constitution prohibits intentionally drawing county boundaries to aid or harm a party or an incumbent legislature. However, rivalries can arise in this session among lawmakers, even within the same party, when drawing the line places two incumbents in the same district, significantly reshapes an existing district, or threatens those running for higher office.
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Cities, counties goals back
Like Democrats, cities and counties have also been targeted by DeSantis and the Republican-led legislature over mask and vaccine policies. More limits can come in this session.
A special session in November resulted in measures to ban mandatory vaccines in the workplace and abolition of vaccine or mask requirements for schools and governments in Florida — although some legal challenges remain.
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This year, cities and counties are concerned about legislation that would allow them to be sued if a local law causes a company to lose at least 15% of its revenue or profit.
Governments fear that this approach will lead to costly lawsuits, whenever a measure is enacted that harms one company. Critics say the measure will put the power to stop work in the hands of a single entity.
“It’s not a policy based on democratic principles,” said Kragen Mosteler, a spokeswoman for the Federation of Florida Districts.
Abortion policy can also split this session. Several Republicans in Florida are seeking legislation similar to those in Texas and Mississippi, which would drastically reduce the number of weeks of pregnancy during which a miscarriage can occur.
But the challenge to the Mississippi law is awaiting a ruling from the US Supreme Court which is not expected until June. While Florida lawmakers may see the benefit of waiting for court guidance before acting, some anticipate that legislation is likely to emerge.
“I suspect something is going to happen,” said Representative Scott Blacon, R-Longwood. “But I don’t know what it would look like now.”
And while Florida lawmakers often try to avoid making changes to election laws during an election year, it looks like 2022 will be different.
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The power of elections worries some
DeSantis wants the legislature to approve the creation of a $5.7 million, 52-person election crime investigation force within the Florida Department of State.
Expansion of the law’s enforcement of campaign-related irregularities worries many election experts and voter organizations, with some fearing it could be used to harass groups that oppose the governor’s policies.
Others say it will upset existing lines of authority with regard to the investigation of alleged election crimes.
DeSantis praised the state’s electoral performance in 2020. But he has never dismissed President Trump’s unfounded claims that vote-rigging in a range of states cost him the White House.
The governor said an investigative unit is essential.
“I guarantee you that, first person to be caught — no one will want to do that after that, because they know there will be enforcement,” DeSantis said.
John F. Kennedy is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport