DeSantis grins as FL Legislature’s ‘anti-freedom’ session comes to an end

‘I don’t know that there was any meat left on the bone’

By: - May 5, 2023 3:03 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis, flanked by Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner, marks the end of the 2023 legislative session during a news conference in the Capitol’s Cabinet Room. Source: Screenshot/DeSantis Facebook

The Florida Legislature adjourned its 2023 regular session on Friday after approving a $117 billion state budget for the next fiscal year — having already passed a raft of legislation that Gov. Ron DeSantis sought to bolster his presidential ambitions, including a near-total ban on abortion.

House Speaker Paul Renner and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo gaveled their chambers out at around 11 a.m., coordinating with the traditional hankie-drop in the Capitol’s Fourth Floor Rotunda as hundreds of aides, lobbyists, reporters, and sightseers looked on.

The 60-day session was remarkable for the major legislation the Republican supermajorities in both chambers passed at the governor’s behest, including the ban on abortion after six weeks’ gestation — before most people realize they are pregnant.

Counting votes since DeSantis’ reelection in November, the Legislature has produced bills making it tougher for policyholders to sue insurance companies that stiff them on claims; making it more difficult to register voters; attacking The Walt Disney Co.’s special district; and vastly expanding availability of school vouchers.

There’s more: Also passed were bills cracking down on “woke” investing; allowing the state to take children from parents who allow them to receive gender-affirming care; and expanding the “Parental Rights in Education Act,” or “Don’t Say Gay,” to cover even more public school students.

There is also the new law allowing any adult to carry a concealed weapon without a state license or having to take a gun-safety course. And the budget appropriates $12 million for DeSantis to move undocumented immigrants from any state (not just Florida) to what he calls “sanctuary states.”

DeSantis has been widely assumed to be waiting for the session to end to announce his presidential plans.

“What happens in the future — look, we’ll get on that relatively soon. I mean, you either got to put up or shut up on that, as well, so we’ll see,” he said Friday.


Fentrice Driskell of Hillsborough County, the Democratic leader in the House, called it the “anti-freedom” session.

Fentrice Driskell. Credit: Florida House

“Rather than focus on the issues the average Floridian cares about, including rising property insurance rates, car insurance rates, rising health insurance costs, the Republican leadership focused on culture wars. And that just doesn’t meet the needs of Floridians,” Driskell told reporters following adjournment.

DeSantis, for his part, praised the Legislature for “really great work.”

Counting the regular and two special sessions held since his reelection, “I don’t think we’ve seen a six-month stretch that has ever been as productive in the history of our state, and I would put us up against any state in the modern history of our country,” the governor said during a joint news conference with legislative leaders. (Traditionally, governors have joined the leadership on the Fourth Floor but DeSantis chose a more sheltered spot with an invited audience in addition to the press.)

“I don’t know that there was any meat left on the bone after this legislative session. You look at issue after issue, we jointly worked together to tackle this stuff head-on,” he said.

“I’ve been getting texts all day from people who’ve been in the process for years — one said 50 years — [who] have never seen such a seamless session,” said Passidomo, who steered to passage a $700 million affordable-housing bill and an $850 million expansion of Florida’s Wildlife Corridor.

Renner, whose signature bill this year expanded taxpayer support for private school scholarships to all income levels, argued the Legislature did address affordability, citing legislation eliminating the “tort tax” caused by “frivolous” litigation against insurance companies.

“If you’re looking for one big winner in this session, I believe it’s children, because we stood up for children and we defended childhood. So, whether it’s in education, universal choice, making sure that every child reads on grade level, is where they need to be in math on grade level, setting aside a quarter-billion for teacher salary increases to make sure they have quality teachers in the classroom,” Renner said.

DeSantis and Renner both defended the anti-transgender legislation, which prohibits gender-affirming care for minors unless they’re already on a regimen, and the ”Parental Rights” expansion, which extends the ban on discussing gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools through the eighth grade. (The state Department of Education has OK’d extending the ban through grade 12.)

“There are activists in this world that seek to obliterate the distinction between childhood and adulthood. And in Florida we will never, ever, allow that to happen,” Renner said.

Voting rights

Democratic Sen. Shevrin Jones echoed Driskell’s remarks about what Floridians really need, and highlighted this year’s elections bill, which calls for up to $250,000 in fines for voter-registration organizations that deliver applications late.

“Our team continues to partner with voting and civil rights organizations across the state in opposition of these voter suppression efforts and will work to add voters back onto the rolls to ensure every voice is heard and represented. I look forward to traveling the state to visit with Floridians and hear how the state can better serve them and their families,” Jones said in a written statement.

I do believe the pendulum will swing.

– Senate Democratic leader Lauren Book

“On culture war issues, Democrats lost those battles — but we showed up and fought hard even when the chips were down, because that’s what our constituents elected us to do,” Senate Democratic leader Lauren Book of Broward County said in her own written statement.

“No matter the odds, we will always stand up and defend Floridians’ rights and personal freedoms — and we will do it again, and again, and again – until the ground we lost is won, because I do believe the pendulum will swing.”

DeSantis didn’t win every battle. For example, his push to rewrite the state’s defamation law to make it easier to sue news organizations and social media posters was quietly shelved after conservative broadcasters began raising objections.

Appropriations Act

As for the budget, it’s the largest in state history and includes $10.9 billion in reserves in case of emergency. The current budget amounts to $109.9 billion. The new budget goes into effect July 1, but first DeSantis gets a chance to veto individual line items.

The new version allocates $200 million to pay down outstanding debt. It includes a 5% pay raise for state employees and allows agencies to offer more if they need to recruit new workers.

Starting pay for officers in the beleaguered Department of Corrections would increase to $45,760, or $22 per hour, with more pay available at institutions suffering staff shortages.

Retirees would see up to $77 per month in health insurance subsidies. The retirement age for workers in special-risk jobs would fall to 55 years. And the state would increase its contribution to retirement accounts by 2%.

The document invests $3.7 billion toward hurricane relief and recovery, including $350 million for a Hurricane Ian and Nicole recovery grant program and $75.2 million to rebuild bridges in Lee County, plus $17.6 million to rebuild schools there.

Public education gets $42.9 million, including state, local, and federal sources. The amount schools will get per pupil will increase by about 4.9%, to $8,648. Since that same amount will go to kids using state vouchers to enroll in private schools, the Legislature is providing $350 million for an “enrollment stabilization fund,” to ease the hit on public classrooms.

There’s $250 million for school safety, including school safety officers. That represents a $40 million increase from existing spending. And there’s $160 million for mental health assistance for schoolkids.

The state universities budget includes $25 million for “operational enhancement” at New College of Florida, where the DeSantis administration ousted the progressive leadership and installed his own, conservative trustees and president. The new interim president is Richard Corcoran, a former House speaker and Education commissioner, whose base salary is $699,000 plus thousands more in perks.

The budget includes $107.5 million to expand DeSantis’ resurrected Florida State Guard, which he alone commands, by 15 positions.

At the same time, the Legislature approved a tax package worth $1.3 billion. The bill repeals sales taxes on baby and toddler products including cribs, monitors, diapers, and clothing; oral hygiene products; adult incontinence products; agricultural fencing; biogas equipment; and private investigative services. It includes one-year tax holidays for purchases of Energy Star appliances and gas ranges and back-to-school purchases. Total tax cuts passed this year total $2.7 billion.

Correction: This article has been changed to clarify that former Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran is interim president of New College.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.