In the coming weeks, Gov. Ron DeSantis is poised to show Floridians – and the country – just how much further he is willing to go than any other Republican leader to turn his state into a conservative vision where abortion is nearly outlawed, guns can be carried in public without training, private schools are subsidized with taxpayer dollars and “wokeness” is excised.
DeSantis’ agenda is expected to dominate the debate in Tallahassee when state lawmakers return to action on Tuesday for what is perhaps the most anticipated legislative session in recent memory. With a decision on his presidential ambitions waiting on the other side of the 60-day session, DeSantis has hyped the humdrum of parliamentary proceedings and legislative sausage-making into a spectacle worth following.
“People look at Florida like, ‘Man, the governor has gotten a lot done,’” DeSantis told “Fox & Friends” last month. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
With DeSantis’ backing or urging, Republican lawmakers have filed a slate of bills that will keep Florida at the forefront of the culture wars that are raging in statehouses across the country. There are legislative proposals targeting drag shows, treatments for transgender children, diversity and equity programs at public universities, gender studies majors, professor tenure, teachers unions, libel protections for the media, so-called “woke” banking and in-state college tuition for undocumented residents. Other proposals would extend DeSantis’ powers as governor, including to control the hiring of professors on every public campus through his political appointees and put him in charge of picking the board that oversees scholastic athletics in the state. Another would amend a longstanding “resign to run” law so DeSantis could launch a bid for president without stepping down as Florida governor.
Though no governor in Florida’s modern history has wielded executive power or the bully pulpit quite like DeSantis, it’s the closely aligned, Republican-held legislature that has handed the governor many of the policy wins that have fueled his political rise. Already this year, the legislature has met in special session to shore up several of DeSantis’ priorities, including the freedom to transport migrants from anywhere in the country to Democratic jurisdictions and fewer hurdles for his new election crime office to charge people for voting errors and violations.
Lawmakers in the special session also approved DeSantis’ plans for a takeover of Disney’s special government powers – punishment for the entertainment giant’s objection last year to the Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics, which prohibited the instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity until after third grade. Under the new law, DeSantis chooses the board members that oversee the taxing district around Disney’s Orlando-area theme parks. Last week, he appointed to the board a political donor, the wife of the state GOP chairman and a former pastor who once suggested tap water could turn people gay.
Now, lawmakers have proposed taking up the legislation at the heart of that feud once again, by extending the prohibited topics in the Parental Rights in Education law to eighth grade. The bill also declares “it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex” and it prohibits school districts from requiring teachers or other employees to use a student’s preferred name or pronouns.
For his part, DeSantis will deliver the state of the state address on Tuesday and then spend much of the following weeks on the road to promote his new book, “The Courage to be Free,” a memoir transfixed on the political battles from his first term. It will be up to Republican lawmakers to give DeSantis fresh material from which he can build a narrative for a presidential campaign, should he choose to run. DeSantis has said he intends to decide after the session if he will jump into the 2024 contest.
Privately, DeSantis’ political team believes that as a sitting governor, DeSantis’ ability to stack policy wins is critical to mounting a campaign against former President Donald Trump. Like Trump and former Gov. Nikki Haley, the only other major declared candidate, many potential contenders for the nomination are out of office and unable to dictate an agenda for other Republicans to match. And, unlike DeSantis, their records may not reflect what animates GOP primary voters at the moment.
In a speech behind closed doors last week to the conservative Club for Growth, DeSantis also suggested he is a singular force among elected Republicans in pushing the party to engage in ideological battles.
“I’m going on offense,” DeSantis said, according to audio of his speech obtained by CNN. “Some of these Republicans, they just sit back like potted plants, and they let the media define the terms of the debate. They let the left define the terms of debate. They take all this incoming, because they’re not making anything happen. And I said, ‘That’s not what we’re doing.’”
Democrats, a perennial minority in Tallahassee with even fewer members after the last election, have little recourse to stop DeSantis and Republican lawmakers. Democrats have asserted that the Republican agenda is failing to address the problems many Floridians are facing, including skyrocketing rents, a housing shortage and fast-rising property insurance rates.
“Just a reminder, eggs are still $5 for a dozen,” Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book said Monday. “It’s $3.50 for a gallon of gas. If you live in the state of Florida in a high rise, you still have to buy flood insurance. But the Republicans want to fight about drag and which bathroom people use.”
Still, there are signs of dissent among Republicans in how hard to push on several fronts. Some Republicans have raised concern at the price tag for a DeSantis-backed expansion of a school voucher program that currently allows low-income parents to offset the cost of sending their children to private and religious school. Under the latest proposal, the program would be open to virtually all parents regardless of income, including those who choose to home school their kids.
At a committee meeting last week, state Sen. Erin Grall, a Republican, warned that the “potential for abuse rises significantly with the dollar amount and keeping a child at home.”
Republicans also have not settled on a new legislative framework for the future of abortion access in the state. Before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, DeSantis signed a bill to ban abortion at 15 weeks without exception. He recently signaled he would support legislation that banned abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected; however, he has not publicly advocated for it with the same fervor as his other priorities. Meanwhile, the state’s Senate President Kathleen Passidomo previously said she wanted a 12-week ban that included exemptions for rape and incest.
John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, an influential conservative group, said he expects a compromise heartbeat bill will pass that includes some exceptions. Other anti-abortion groups want to see DeSantis sign a complete ban on abortion.
“While exceptions are important and represent real human beings, the bottom line is they are small in number, so it’s a huge victory even with exceptions and I think the governor and his staff are thinking the same way,” Stemberger said. “He’s certainly committed to signing a heartbeat bill.”
It remains to be seen, too, how Republicans respond to DeSantis’ immigration agenda. DeSantis has proposed repealing a measure that granted in-state tuition for undocumented students who were brought to the US by their parents. The law, championed by his own lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nuñez, when she was a state representative, was a top priority of his predecessor, then-Gov. Rick Scott, and passed the GOP-controlled legislature with help from many of the party’s Latino members. Additionally, DeSantis wants lawmakers to mandate that employers check the immigration status of all workers against a federal database called E-Verify, a proposal opposed for years by the state’s influential hospitality and agriculture industries that bankroll many Republican campaigns.
Republicans have also faced pressure from the right on another DeSantis priority: eliminating the state permit to carry a concealed weapon in Florida. Under the proposal, eligible Floridians could carry a concealed gun in Florida without seeking approval from the state, which currently requires proof of training and a background check to obtain.
While Democrats and gun-control advocates have criticized DeSantis for removing one of the few checks on firearms in the state, gun-rights activists have said the measure doesn’t go far enough. They want Florida to allow people to carry a gun in public in the open and for the state to eliminate gun-free zones. In Florida, it’s currently illegal to carry a firearm at a school or on a college campus.
“The title of ‘constitutional carry’ for this bill is a lie,” Luis Valdes, the Florida director of Gun Owners of America, said during a recent committee hearing on the bill. “Why are Republicans defending (former Democratic attorney general) Janet Reno’s gun control policies?”
DeSantis has suggested, at times, that it is up to the legislature to put these bills on his desk. But for some conservatives, DeSantis has set the expectation that he can bully Republican lawmakers into supporting any measure he gets behind.
DeSantis himself has said his political philosophy is guided by taking political risks that others won’t.
“Boldness is something that voters reward,” DeSantis said Sunday in California. “The lesson is swing for the fences. You will be rewarded.”