Florida’s legislative session begins on March 7, but there’s a pretty solid preview of what’s to come thanks to a breakneck special session that ended Feb. 10. During the special session, requested by Gov. Ron DeSantis, lawmakers took five days to approve funding priorities that were on the governor’s priority list and approved cleanups behind two of the governor’s high-profile media grabbing initiatives last year.
The Republican supermajority in both chambers clarified that state funds can be spent to transport migrants from anywhere in the U.S. and also put $10 million toward future “relocations.” The broader language was needed to retroactively approve the flight DeSantis’ staff orchestrated last year flying mostly Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. At the time, the state budget line only allowed for transport of people from Florida.
The special session also addressed the governor’s clap back at the Walt Disney Co. Last spring, after doing little to actually raise an alarm about the Parental Rights in Education bill – dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents – Disney said it would work to repeal the law. That triggered DeSantis to use last year’s special session, ostensibly on congressional redistricting, to squash the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which has allowed Disney effective self-governance of its Central Florida property. Now, the governor will have authority to appoint board members to the renamed “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District,” similar to how DeSantis has used his appointment power to bend higher education to his will.
Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner have already shown a distaste for pushing back on the governor’s agenda or getting in each other’s way. “We’re committed to not playing games of holding hostage each other’s priorities to get what we want,” Passidomo told City & State last year about her relationship with her House counterpart, for instance. “Whatever his initiatives are will be mine. Whatever my initiatives are will be his.”
So what’s left for the regular session? Although the governor is the real agenda-setter, Passidomo introduced her plan for taking on Florida’s affordable housing crisis, focused on developer incentives and increasing supply. Renner has made a sweeping expansion of the state’s school voucher system his main goal, championing a bill that would provide state funds for every K-12 student in Florida for private or home-schooled education.
That amicable relationship, coupled with the GOP’s vise-grip control of the Capitol, adds up to what Christian Ziegler, now chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, predicts will be “a smorgasbord of conservative priorities and legislation discussed, passed and signed into law.”
Abortion changes hinge on pending court case
Floridians’ right to abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy might hang over this entire legislative session. In late January, the Florida Supreme Court said that it would hear a case on last year’s law establishing the 15-week ban, with no exceptions for rape and incest. A ruling is expected to come after session. The case centers on whether the ban (HB 5) violates the state’s constitutional privacy provision, which was drafted envisioning a post-Roe future. The court opted to leave the 15-week ban in effect while the lawsuit moves forward.
No bills on abortion have emerged yet, and state leaders have indicated they’re awaiting the outcome of the court case before advancing further legislation. But DeSantis has suggested he wants to continue to reduce the window of time that an abortion is legal. Passidomo has said she would support a 12-week ban with exceptions for rape and incest; she pushed for the same language on the 15-week ban last year but ultimately voted in favor of the final bill without it.
People seeking abortions in Florida already must have an ultrasound and wait 24 hours after visiting a clinic to receive abortion care.
Passidomo’s supply-side, developer-friendly affordable housing bill
Affordable housing advocates are going into this session with the optimism of knowing their issue is a legacy-making project for Passidomo, who introduced the first bill that would stop the state from raiding the state’s Sadowski trust fund, money meant to keep affordable housing projects moving but that in recent years often got reappropriated.
Passidomo identified the issue as her No. 1 priority after being elected to the presidency. Her bill (SB 102) spells out the details of how to bring, in her words, “more money, more focus, (and a) common sense approach to providing workforce housing.”
The bill proposes a record amount of funding, directing more than $500 million to Sadowski trust fund programs. It also creates tax exemptions for developers building affordable housing and funding for converting existing buildings into housing. However, as Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando pointed out, the bill “does not provide any immediate relief to Florida tenants, which is where the biggest challenges lie.”
Added Kody Glazer, the legal policy director for the Florida Housing Coalition, “No one funding bill is going to solve the affordable housing crisis. It’s a supply-side bill, and I think it’s going to do a good job of that.”
Beyond funding, the first line of the bill bans local rent controls, which would preempt a measure approved by Orange County voters last November, currently in legal limbo at the Florida Supreme Court.
While the bill also preempts local governments’ authority to approve multifamily mixed-use development, Glazer describes it overall as a “you’re on notice” bill to local governments, laying out ways they’re encouraged to increase affordable housing without the hammer of the state coming down just yet. It also gives local governments a tool they haven’t had before: The ability to structure their own tax exemption initiatives.
The state’s median rental price increased by over 30% in the past two years, and its metro areas top the list of overvalued housing markets, according to recent research out of Florida Atlantic University. The bill would foster the creation of housing for low-income households, defined as families living at or below an area’s median income. In Miami-Dade County, for example, a family of four earning $78,000 is deemed low-income.
The bill is being carried by Senate Community Affairs Chairwoman Alexis Calatayud, a Miami-Dade Republican, and the governor has indicated his support.
Codifying bans on gender-affirming care for youths
Lawmakers have filed bills to restrict access to health care for transgender people in past sessions, but the governor’s rhetoric – which generally shapes policy in Florida these days – has LGBTQ advocates concerned that this year will see such bills move forward.
This month, the Florida Board of Medicine confirmed an earlier vote to ban gender-affirming care for trans youths. These health care treatments are supported by mainstream medical associations and seen as the best options that doctors can provide for many trans patients.
“The governor gave an unhinged transphobic rant where he talked about wanting the Legislature to take action to codify the work that the Board of Medicine is doing now,” said Brandon Wolf, the press secretary for Equality Florida, the state’s largest civil rights organization focused on the LGBTQ community. “He telegraphed to the Legislature that continuing to restrict the health care of trans people is a priority for him right now.”
Dr. Joseph Ladapo, the state’s surgeon general, has countered that “children and adolescents in our state will continue to face a substantial risk of long-term harm” from hormone treatments, surgeries and other interventions. At the same time, there is research that shows gender-affirming care reduces rates of suicide and depression for trans youth.
Board of Medicine members are appointed by the governor, and a future board under a different administration could overturn the current administrative ban. But if lawmakers pass a law with similar restrictions, it would be more difficult to undo in the future.
Renner’s voucher expansion could redirect billions to private education
Since Jeb Bush was governor, Florida has been using taxpayer dollars to send kids to private schools through a voucher system. The program, launched in 1999, could reach its final form this legislative session. A bill (HB 1) would give every K-12 student in the state access to public funds to be spent on private school education or home schooling. The expansion would cost an estimated $4 billion, according to the Florida Policy Institute, or nearly 30% of state pre K-12 education funds. The bill is carried by Kaylee Tuck, a Lake Placid Republican who chairs the House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee, and championed by Speaker Renner. The bill passed out of its subcommittee at the end of January almost entirely along party lines.
Private school enrollment in Florida has climbed by almost 100,000 students over the past decade to more than 416,000 students in the 2021-22 school year.
Currently, families must make less than $111,000 or have a child who needs accommodations to qualify. The proposed legislation would remove all eligibility requirements, including income. An amendment proposed by Rep. Angie Nixon, a Jacksonville Democrat, which would have barred families that earn $1 million or more from receiving vouchers, was voted down in committee.
Education advocates are watching to see what, if any, accountability there is once the funds leave the public sphere and what protections will exist for students. “It’s not a surprise to anybody who has been paying attention to public education that there is an active drumbeat to privatize public education,” said Carlee Simon, former superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools and founder of the Families Deserve Inclusive Schools political action committee. “This is definitely an example of the ‘devil is in the details’: What are the protections for students? What are the commitments to free and appropriate education – or are there any at all?”
No training or background check, no problem carrying a gun
Florida could also become the latest state to allow people to carry a concealed gun without a license, known by advocates as “constitutional carry.” The proposed legislation would eliminate the current license application process, which includes a criminal background check and proof of training through programs like hunter education or law enforcement courses.
“This is not constitutional carry – this is untrained carry” Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, a Democrat who was mayor of Parkland at the time of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, told reporters when the bill was announced. “We have to be very clear and specific as to what the legislation actually does, and that is to remove the training requirement, and you will no longer have the check if you have something disqualifying you in your criminal record.”
Renner is a vocal champion of the bill; Passidomo and DeSantis have both expressed support as well. About 10% of Florida’s population – more than 2.62 million people – already have concealed weapon permits. This January alone, there were six mass shootings in the state, defined as four or more people hit by gunfire.
It could also become harder to trace gun purchases, gun control advocates say. After Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson called for legislation banning the use of merchant codes for gun and ammunition retailers, Republicans Danny Burgess in the Senate and John Snyder in the House filed identical bills in their respective chambers (SB 214, HB 221). The bills would prevent credit card companies from using a separate category code to identify purchases of guns and related products.
Water quality rhetoric doesn’t match proposed bills
Florida is dependent on clean water, whether it’s drinking water from the tap or the waves off our beaches. The state’s water bodies are facing a host of challenges, including toxic blue-green algae from agricultural runoff and overdrawn springs that threaten drinking water supply. At the same time, the Department of Environmental Protection’s Environmental Regulation Commission hasn’t met for five years.
The governor promised additional funding for water quality during this legislative session, but so far the bills that have emerged from committee – like $50 billion to clean up the struggling Indian River Lagoon – provide temporary fixes that environmental advocates say don’t address the root causes of problems, especially uncontrolled development. For example, if a city changes its comprehensive plan to suit a developer’s desires and residents take that decision to court, new legislation (HB 359, SB 540) would put parties who lose those planning-related challenges on the hook for the winning party’s legal fees, which could have a chilling effect.
Another measure (HB 41), introduced by Rep. Alina Garcia, would prohibit local initiatives and referendums for land development, one of the few remaining tools for residents to weigh in on community planning.
“There’s great talk coming out of the Capitol, but what’s coming out of cabinet votes and bills being proposed will serve to achieve the exact opposite objective,” said Jane West, the policy and planning director for 1000 Friends of Florida, a smart-growth advocacy organization. “We need to make the connection between sprawling development and impaired water quality.”