The Florida Capitol. Credit: Michael Moline
The Florida Legislature convenes Tuesday to reorganize itself following elections that produced supermajorities for the Republican Party in both chambers. Its new leaders include the first woman in a generation to lead the Senate.
The proceedings will be largely ceremonial, as new members take their oaths of office beneath galleries filled with family members and well-wishers. There’ll be prayers, the Pledge of Allegiance, oratory.
The schedule calls for the House to convene and organize itself at 10 a.m. and for the Senate to follow at 10:30. Then House Speaker Paul Renner will brief reporters, again followed by Senate President Kathleen Passidomo.
Expect ebullience among the GOP caucus, which will contain 85 members, exceeding the two-thirds vote threshold for overriding vetoes or changing the 120-member House’s rules to further isolate Democrats. The Senate Republican caucus comprises 28 members, another supermajority in the 40-seat chamber.
As for the Democratic caucus, two women will be in the top leadership roles. State Sen. Lauren Book, representing part of Broward County, returns as leader of the Senate Democrats. She’s a former educator known for her advocacy for children’s well-being and against human trafficking. Fentrice Driskell, an attorney representing part of Hillsborough County, will lead the House Democrats — the first Black woman to serve in that role.
“What concerns me really is with respect to procedure and the rules. If the majority decided they want to cut off debate, they can now do that and they don’t need our input. And that would mean the millions of people that we represent would not have their voices heard. So, that’s troubling to me,” Driskell told the Phoenix in a telephone interview.
“But in terms of understanding how to engage across the aisle to be effective, that’s what we’ve had to do for a couple of decades, and so I think we’ll be OK,” she said.
Insurance, abortion politics
Gov. Ron DeSantis is talking to the legislative leadership about convening at least one special session in December to pass additional fixes to Florida’s insurance system, which has been experiencing wild increases in rates; rebating property taxes for people who suffered hurricane damage; and perhaps other matters.
Abortion foes want the call of that special session expanded to include restrictions on the procedure that go beyond the 15-week ban (past the last menstrual cycle) adopted earlier this year. Renner and Passidomo have signaled interest in that — Renner in general terms, with Passidomo leaning toward a 12-week ban with added exceptions for rape and incest that existing law lacks, according to a Miami Herald report.
Abortion opponents plan to rally on the Florida Capitol grounds and inside the building Tuesday, as the organizational session convenes.
Neither presiding officer has responded to request for interviews that the Phoenix lodged with their aides.
In a release issued on election night, Renner promised “to pursue a bold, conservative agenda for the nation to follow that gives citizens more freedom and opportunity to achieve their American Dream.”
Renner’s election-night release noted that 31 Republicans were elected without opposition and that the caucus includes 15 Hispanics, three African Americans, and a record 24 GOP women.
Those three African Americans are House Republicans. In the Florida Senate, Corey Simon will be the only Black Republican lawmaker, according to a Florida Phoenix story.
State Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat representing part of Miami-Dade County, told the Phoenix that “for the first time in a long time, in both chambers, Black legislators make up the majority of the Democratic caucus.”
He added: “It is going to be very important for the Black Caucus to use this as an opportunity to amplify the needs of our communities; that goes from infrastructure to economic development. This time is an opportunity to be strategic about what and how do we use our collective power at the table,” the Phoenix wrote earlier.
Passidomo becomes the third woman to serve as president of the Florida Senate, following Democrat Gwen Margolis (1990-92) and Republican Toni Jennings (who served two terms between 1996 and 2000). Passidomo’s an attorney whose district includes Collier, Hendry, and part of Lee counties.
A memorandum announcing her top supports detailed her general approach.
“This election made it abundantly clear Floridians are tired of the ‘government knows best,’ approach coming from Washington, and are instead looking for leaders who defend the right to parent and the opportunity to build and grow a business,” she wrote.
Renner, an attorney who represents Flagler and part of St. Johns counties, is a retired U.S. Navy commander who served in the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 and in Afghanistan in 2011.
“Republicans have led Florida with principle and courage for 25 years. This election will set us up for success for the next 25 years and beyond,” Renner said in a written statement.
He’s already published proposed changes to the House rules, including one specifying that “member conduct that causes a material disruption to official legislative business is punishable by the House body.” In April, Black Democrats shut down debate temporarily over new congressional maps that reduced Black representation by staging a sit-in in the well of the chamber.
The new rules eliminate a requirement that members file proposed member items — budget line items steering money to building and other projects in their districts — as formal bills, rather than as amendments to the larger appropriation acts. Former Speaker Richard Corcoran instituted the requirement during his term as presiding officer between 2016 and 2018, to shine light on the lobbyists often behind these items, according to contemporaneous reports including this by Florida Politics.
The new rule will still require disclosure of the lobbyists, a memo from Renner to House members says, “to keep the process transparent and accountable.”
As of Monday, we were still waiting for Renner to announce his committee chairs, although he has appointed Chuck Clemons, a vice president at Santa Fe College who represents Gilchrist, Levy, and part of Alachua counties, as speaker pro tempore, responsible for filling in when the speaker isn’t presiding over the House; and Michael Grant as minority leader, responsible for overseeing the GOP caucus and legislative agenda. Grant is a businessman who represents parts of Charlotte and Sarasota counties.
Senate leadership team
Passidomo’s assembled a leadership team comprising ardent conservatives, although she had not yet named the leaders of members of most committees as of this writing.
Dennis Baxley, representing portions of Orange and Lake County, is Passidomo’s choice for president pro tempore. He’s a former executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida who sponsored the Parental Rights in Education (“Don’t Say Gay”) Act, arguing on the Senate floor that he feared a “big wave” of students “experimenting” with different sexual and gender identities. The Advocate, the LGBTQ magazine, has called him “one of the most anti-LGBTQ+ lawmakers” in Florida legislative history. He’s also known as a fierce opponent of abortion and has defended the Confederacy. His background is as a funeral director.
Travis Hutson will chair a new Committee on Fiscal Policy; he told The Daytona Beach News-Journal that the panel will serve as a clearing house for tax-related legislation, similar to the role long played by the committees on Rules and Appropriations. His district covers Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns, and part of Volusia counties. His family owns a large Northeast Florida development company
The new Rules Committee chair is Debbie Mayfield, a retired bank executive from Brevard County. The post is one of the Senate’s most powerful, with authority to interpret the chamber’s rules to advance or knock back legislation. Passidomo served as Rules chair for the past two years before advancing to the presidency. At that time, Mayfield was Republican leader.
Another plum assignment — chair of the Appropriations Committee — goes to Doug Broxson, representing Escambia, Santa Rosa, and part of Okaloosa counties. His background is in insurance and real estate.
Ben Albritton is the new majority leader. The Senate’s webpage describes the office “as the political extension of the Office of the Senate President, to enable the Republican Caucus to fully participate in the governmental process” and enforce party discipline. Albritton, who works in agribusiness, represents Charlotte, DeSoto, Hardee, and parts of Lee and Polk counties.
Keith Perry, representing Levy, Marion, and part of Alachua counties, will be “rounding out my leadership team,” Passidomo wrote in her memo. An aide explained by email that Passidomo “is working to finalize the remaining committee appointments and will share more about Sen. Perry’s specific role in the coming weeks. While those final decisions are still pending, Sen. Perry is a member of her class and a key member of her team, so she wanted to be sure to include him in this communication.”
Committees will begin meeting on Monday, Dec. 12, through Friday, Dec. 16, with subsequent committee weeks beginning on Jan. 3, Jan. 17, Jan. 23, Feb. 6, Feb. 13, and Feb. 20 to prepare legislation for potential floor votes. The 60-day regular session begins on Tuesday, March 7.
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