As Florida’s legislative session draws to a close, it is time to take inventory and review what has emerged from the Capitol. From the headline-topping bills to the under-the-radar legislation, MidPoint host Shelley Reback, joined by Tampa Bay Times’ William March and State Rep. Andrew Learned review the good, the bad and the ugly of this year’s session.
Listen to the full episode here:
Election Police Force
Among the many proposals brought forward and passed through the House and Senate, a new “election police force” was passed. This passage would grant Governor Ron DeSantis the ability to appoint law enforcement officers to a special law enforcement agency allegedly to detect and pursue election crimes such as fraud, although critics claim the mere existence of such a law enforcement agency is a voter suppression tactic. While the notion of widespread election fraud in the 2020 race has been wholly debunked, some actions Republicans have taken are currently under investigation. For example, cases of party affiliations being changed from Democrat to Republican without permission by a GOP voter registration company were reported, specifically in South Florida. The State Attorney is already investigating. In addition, schemes to siphon votes from Democratic candidates by running ghost candidates were revealed last year and federal indictments have resulted. Critics claim these investigations and prosecutions show that a separate election police force controlled by the Governor is unnecessary and a waste of public funds.
“Culture War” Legislation
Other significant bills, such as the headline-making ‘Don’t Say Gay’ and ‘Stop Woke’ legislation, along with the 15-week abortion ban, have also been passed on to the desk of Gov. DeSantis, where they are expected to pass into law. The process of passing these bills was highly charged on both sides of the aisle, and the Capitol, now opened to the public after Covid, saw an increase in protests and outside gatherings from pro and con forces. Emotions ran high, with legislators revealing personal stories and their own traumas surrounding the topics being raised in an effort to influence their colleagues’ votes. Ultimately, despite Democrats’ efforts to derail or at least significantly amend these pieces of legislation, all of these “culture war” bills passed on party-line votes.
Housing and Immigration Acts
Actual crises facing Florida residents were not solved by legislators this session. However, political columnist William March told WMNF that the reason behind it may not have been lack of care, but rather a lack of time. With only a 60 day legislative session, there is only a small amount of time to hear each bill, March said and Rep. Learned agreed. Complicated bills are often left to the end of the session and tend to die when the legislature simply runs out of time to address them. This year, bills surrounding condo inspections and affordable housing both died late in the legislative session this year, but it may not have been an intentional effort to avoid the topic, March suggested. One of the biggest issues avoided by the legislature this year is the property insurance crisis. It remains to be seen if they will be called back into a special session to address this pressing issue. It also suggests that legislative reforms to increase the session and make legislators serve full-time may be considered in the future.
Another hot topic among GOP lawmakers this session was immigration. A new immigration bill passed that restricted transportation of unaccompanied minors into Florida, although Rep. Learned told WMNF that the rhetoric around it is a lot worse than the reality. Its passage, he said, is likely because of its value to DeSantis’s likely presidential bid; claims to crack down on immigration are a common claim for Republicans, and making a show of this bill could help solidify his voter base. At the end of the day, Rep. Learned assured, the bill that was passed was “watered down” from what it claimed to do.
However, not everything is as bleak as the headlines make it seem. Representative Andrew Learned said that while major victories were few and far between, there were still plenty of wins for Democrats. Efforts to “take the edge off” some of the bills were recognized, alleviating some of the harm that could be done.
Among the ‘wins’ coming out of this year’s session: All state employees and faculties, including public educators are getting a salary raise, with an increase in overall education funding. While this raise is not nearly enough, Learned said, it’s still a start, and comes with a guarantee that no educator will see a reduction. In addition, with excess money in the budget to be allocated, diapers have become tax-free for a year, allowing new parents to save money on necessities for their children.