Legislative session ends; what passed and what died
GOP-dominated body pushed through a wave of policy changes
Tallahassee Democrat | USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature passed about 200 bills during the 2023 legislative session, which wrapped up on Friday afternoon.
That’s only a slim portion of the 1,828 bills lawmakers filed, but it’s still a lot of law. And it does a lot of big things.
This session saw a tsunami of huge policy changes, most backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis before his expected presidential run. These changes, though, are not only a care package for his coming campaign. For better or worse, they’ll have wideranging effects on Floridians from Key West to Pensacola.
Here’s an overview of some of the last two months’ largest legislative priorities — those that sailed
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through the process, those that struggled and those that sank — and how they might affect you.
These legislative priorities sailed through the legislative process. While they may not have been completely free of rocky waters or contrary winds, there was little doubt they’d reached their destination.
In a post-Roe v. Wade world, the Republican Party has struggled figuring out how to take on abortion without alienating moderates.
But Florida Republicans, who passed a 15-week abortion ban last year yet went on to dominate the 2022 midterms, have not held back.
GOP members filed a six-week abortion ban bill – with exceptions for rape and incest – on the first day of session.
Pro-abortion groups protested loudly and frequently. On one particularly contentious day, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo cleared her chamber’s gallery following numerous angry shouts. That evening, Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried, Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book and other protesters were arrested outside of Tallahassee City Hall.
Nevertheless, Republican lawmakers quickly pushed the bills through the Capitol.
There was one notable sign, though, that concerns aren’t nonexistent – especially for one with political aspirations beyond Florida.
DeSantis signed the legislation into law hours after it passed – but late at night, and without a press conference. He remained uncharacteristically quiet on the law in the days following.
Whether the law goes into effect is contingent on how the Florida Supreme Court rules in a lawsuit against the 15week abortion ban.
Drag shows, LGBTQ community, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Republican lawmakers filed more than a dozen bills that directly or indirectly target transgender Floridians and in some cases the broader LGBTQ community.
Some passed on strong tailwinds. Some didn’t go the distance. Some got knocked around and chipped before pulling into port.
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The deluge of legislation against a relatively small community has left a human toll, advocates say.
There’s SB 1438, which supporters say bans children from attending a narrow subset of live performances that aren’t age-appropriate. Critics worry that its vague language will be used to target family-friendly drag shows and Pride events. Some Pride events have already been canceled.
Then there’s HB 1521, which criminalizes transgender Floridians from using public bathrooms matching their gender identity.
HB 1069 too passed, which expands last year’s Parental Rights in Education law, called “Don’t Say Gay” by critics. The sweeping measure bars teachers from referring to someone by a pronoun or name that doesn’t correspond to their sex assigned at birth, a measure that LGBTQ advocates say will harm transgender students and teachers.
SB 1580 allows state medical professionals to refuse to carry out health care services if they conflict with their religious beliefs or moral convictions. Opponents worry the measure could lead to medical discrimination, especially against the LBGTQ community.
And SB 254 puts more teeth to Florida’s ban on gender-affirming care for minors and adds some restrictions to the care for adults.
Florida House Republicans also approved SB 266, a bill that bans funding for diversity, equity and inclusion programs and restricts teaching about race and gender on college campuses.
DeSantis has yet to sign any of these measures.
Housing crisis: Affordability and local control
Going into session, Republicans had taken flack from critics who said they were not doing enough to address Florida’s soaring housing costs.
Within several weeks of opening day, DeSantis had an $711 million affordable housing plan on his desk. Called the “Live Local Act,” it’s a sweeping measure steering policies and money toward encouraging cities and counties to create more lower-cost apartments and houses.
It passed the Senate unanimously and got only six no-votes in the House. DeSantis signed it.
But some Democrats expressed worries over a provision that prevents rent controls, which seemed targeted at Orange County voters, who last year overwhelmingly approved limiting how much landlords can raise rents.
That was just the start of GOP lawmakers taking control from communities on how to regulate housing.
They also nixed rent protections set by local governments (HB 1417).
The Legislature also passed SB 170, which allows businesses to sue local governments for ordinances they view as “arbitrary or unreasonable” and suspend enforcement of that ordinance until the court issues a ruling. Democrats worry this could be used to prevent affordable housing actions.
But legislation that local governments said would restrict their ability to regulate vacation rental properties died on Friday.
DeSantis has yet to put his signature on any of these bills.
Third-party voter registration crackdown, election changes
This session’s wide-ranging election legislation didn’t see the light of day until early April.
Republicans lawmakers passed it by late April, along party lines.
The bill, SB 7050, notably gives De-Santis the OK to run for president without resigning and increasing regulations and fines on third-party voter registration organizations, which have been a GOP target for multiple years.
DeSantis has yet to sign it.
Vouchers for all
Within a few weeks of sessions’ start, lawmakers sped through and DeSantis signed one of the largest private school voucher expansions in the nation.
The legislation makes all Florida students eligible for taxpayer-financed vouchers to attend private schools – a roughly $8,500 award that Democrats derided as a taxpayer supplement to wealthier parents with kids already enrolled in private education and supporters said was an important “school choice” tool.
Republican lawmakers also pushed through legislation that puts heightened restrictions on Democrat-allied unions, while giving a pass to those that typically support the GOP.
Not all Republicans support the legislation, though. SB 256 passed the Senate 23-17 and the House 72-44. With the Republican supermajority – 84 members in the House and 28 in the Senate – this represents more in-party division than most bills seen from a legislative body that has been usually in lockstep this session.
It prohibits the use of paycheck deductions for most public-sector union dues and increases to 60% required employee membership, potentially decertifying a union that can’t meet that threshold.
It applies to unions representing groups like teachers and healthcare workers, but not to correctional officers, law enforcement, firefighters and other first responders.
A union’s current annual financial report also would have to be audited by an independent certified public accountant.
Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, a former state Republican Party chair, opposed it largely because of the accounting provision, which he said was intended to “kill off the unions of Florida.”
DeSantis has yet to put his signature on it.
In a rare bipartisan moment, Democrats and Republicans in the Florida House and Senate unanimously approved a plan to expand eligibility for the KidCare subsidized health-insurance program, readying the issue to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis. Senate sponsor Alexis Calatayud, R-Miami, said the bill would help low-income families “continue the climb to upward mobility” while ensuring that children receive health coverage. Under KidCare, families who do not qualify for Medicaid can pay $15 or $20 a month in premiums to insure children.
These legislative priorities, at the very least, sailed against the wind and faced a stormy sea at times.
The touted goal of this legislation, SB 264, is protecting national security. It targets “foreign countries of concern,” including Russia, Cuba, Iran and North Korea. It puts the biggest spotlight on China, carving out language specifically devoted to how the legislation applies to its government and those connected with it.
This bill is a big priority of DeSantis, who has not yet signed it.
Lawmakers are aiming to prevent Florida governmental entities from entering into contracts with these countries of concern if personal identifying information is in play. They also want to prevent economic incentives contracts from going to these countries. It’s also intended to prevent the foreign governments and their officials from buying property close to a U.S. military installation or critical infrastructure facility.
That legislation initially flew through the Capitol, gaining bipartisan support, passing the Senate and its first two of three committees in the House.
Then a coalition of Florida Chinese groups caught wind of measure. At the bill’s last House committee stop, more than a 100 people signed up to testify in opposition. They said the language was too broad and would lead to discrimination.
The legislation then bounced between the chambers with different amendments and different Democrats expressing concerns, until it finally passed Thursday evening.
In its final form, the bill prevents the foreign countries of concern and their officers from buying land within 10
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miles of a military installation or critical infrastructure facility.
Though it offers an exception for a “natural” person, who is not affiliated with the People’s Republic of China, as long as they buy one real estate property that is not within five miles of one of these installations and not larger than two acres.
No one connected with Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party is allowed to purchase real estate in Florida, under the bill, nor can anyone who is “domiciled” in China and not a United States citizen or lawful permanent resident.
“My concern has always been with the lack of definitions with some of the critical terms used in the bill,” said House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell of Tampa. “Because we have a lack of definitions, if they were viewed to be overbroad, we could veering into the area of national origin discrimination.”
While there was little doubt that lawmakers were going to pass a bill that allowed people to conceal carry pistols without a permit, the legislation caught cannonballs from both sides.
Critics said it will cause more gun violence in a nation plagued by it. Second Amendment groups and some Republicans said it didn’t go far enough. They blasted the exclusion of “open carry,” which would allow citizens to carry without concealing.
DeSantis himself gave lawmakers the go-ahead to approve an open carry measure, but added he didn’t think the Legislature would.
He was right. Even Passidomo, the Senate president, said she wouldn’t support it.
A poll by the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab found 77% of Floridians, including 62% of Republicans do not support allowing people to carry a weapon without a license.
DeSantis ended up quietly signing the bill behind closed doors.
After just a few years of being legal, courtesy of a loophole in a 2018 federal farm bill, THC products like delta-8 and delta-9 have exploded in popularity — as have concerns about the safety of the products.
Yet, amid the controversy, those products have created new jobs, with a hefty economic impact.
Supporters of bill SB 1676 say it’s aimed at children’s safety. The legislation makes it so product packages are not appealing to children. It says the substance can’t be sold to those younger than 21. It also increases the regulatory standards for production, packaging and distribution.
Many business owners and users who testified on the legislation during committee meetings weren’t concerned about those parts. They were concerned about a provision that would’ve dramatically limited the allowable THC amounts in the products.
Their concerns obviously rattled lawmakers, who made the limitations less strict before dropping them entirely.
The bill passed both chambers unanimously. DeSantis has yet to sign it.
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A couple of weeks before the session began, DeSantis called for a series of stricter steps to combat illegal immigration.
Then came the legislation. SB 1718 strengthens employment requirements, allows state law enforcement officials to conduct random audits of businesses suspected of hiring undocumented workers and increases criminal penalties for human smuggling.
The legislation also gives $12 million for the Division of Emergency Management’s Unauthorized Alien Transport Program, a descendant of the spending allowance DeSantis used last year to transport about 50 Venezuelan asylumseekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast.
But the measure, while still condemned by immigrant advocates, did not include an in-state tuition ban for undocumented students, one of DeSantis’ priorities.
The bill stalled in its committees for a long while, and only began moving again in the final two weeks of session. DeSantis hasn’t signed it yet.
These legislative priorities are sleeping with the fishes. For this year, at least.
During an early February roundtable, held in what looked like the set of a highbudget broadcast news studio, DeSantis said he wanted to make it easier to sue media outlets that he claimed were society’s “leading purveyors of disinformation.”
Lawmakers got the signal. Soon after, legislation emerged that would do just that. And more.
House Bill 991 would have not only made it easier to sue for defamation, but also assumed anonymous sources are false in defamation cases, could’ve increased legal costs for those sued and said that people sued for discrimination allegations cannot justify them by citing a plaintiff’s “constitutionally protected religious expression or beliefs” or their scientific beliefs.
Another big target: the 1964 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan Supreme Court decision. Justices ruled that public officials can not get legal damages from journalists who report false information unless it was done with “actual malice.” DeSantis would like to see that revisited by the now conservative-leaning high court.
The defamation bills sailed through their first legislative committee stops in both chambers. Then, conservative media outlets and officials started speaking in opposition.
One criticism of many: Republican U.S. Rep. Cory Mills, who represents the southern half of Florida’s Volusia County, said in a letter to state lawmakers that the legislation was “unpatriotic” and “not representative of the free state of Florida.”
The House bill got stuck in its last committee. The Senate version of the legislation, which had language that didn’t go as far at the House, did as well.
Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, the House bill sponsor, denied criticism had anything to do with the bill dying and said it would be back next session.
Meanwhile, DeSantis as recently as Wednesday went on a multiple-minute rant about journalists’ use of anonymous sources.
Protecting Confederate monuments
Republican lawmakers started the session pushing legislation that would’ve protected Confederate and other monuments and memorials.
The legislation never escaped the committee process in either chamber.
SB 1096 would have prevented the removal of monuments and memorials on public property, including by local governments.
Signs or plaques added on or beside a memorial — such as ones contextualizing that the Confederacy sought to protect slavery — would have had to get the written approval of the secretary of state, a position currently held by Republican Cord Byrd. There are currently 75 Confederate memorials in Florida, according to a 2022 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Thirty have been removed since 2015.
Raising rifle-buying age
After a shooter killed 17 people in Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, Florida lawmakers defied the influential National Rifle Association and passed the first state gun restrictions in decades.
But, half-decade later, legislative Republicans tried to peel back one of the measures intended to prevent similar tragedies.
While federal law already prohibited people younger than 21 from buying handguns, the measure in question extended that age limit to the sale of rifles and other long guns, like shotguns and AR-15s, the semi-automatic weapon legally bought and used by the 19-year-old shooter.
Legislation — HB 1543 — would have pushed that limit back to 18 years old.
The House passed its bill on a 69-36 vote and sent it to the Senate, which never took it up.
This comes despite DeSantis, at a press conference on the last Wednesday of session, saying he opposed the current 21-year-old limit.
“It’s in the courts,” he said. “I do think ultimately it’s going to be determined that those blanket prohibitions are not constitutional.”
Nixing local ‘living wage’ ordinances
Pushed legislation, HB 917, would have prevented local governments from implementing “living wage” ordinances, which requires those they contract with to pay their employees more than the state minimum wage.
Tens of thousands of Floridians across have more money in their wallets thanks to those ordinances.
Their wallets will remain just as thick, since that bill died on the House floor.
Instead, lawmakers took up and passed the Senate version of the legislation, SB 892, which allows minor league baseball players to make less than minimum wage.
USA TODAY Network - Florida government accountability reporter Douglas Soule is based in Tallahassee. He can be reached at DSoule@gannett.com. Twitter: @DouglasSoule. Contributing: Kathryn Varn, James Call and John Kennedy from the USA TODAY Network – Florida and the News Service of Florida
This session saw a tsunami of huge policy changes, most backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis before his expected presidential run.