Eye on the prize? Florida Gov. DeSantis chases red-meat issues this legislative session
The governor's policy goals are about social and cultural issues that excite the national base, one analyst says.
Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t officially declared whether he’s interested in running for the White House – but much of the legislation he has championed this session looks like a wish list for conservative voters across the nation.
To be sure, he’s focused on culture-war issues beloved by Republicans across the country, but not necessarily by most Floridians. For example, he has backed:
— A permitless carry bill that polling suggests 77% of Floridians overall oppose.
— A six-week abortion ban that 75% oppose in Florida.
— A ban on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs on college campuses that 61% oppose.
Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, believes DeSantis’ policy goals are about social and cultural issues that excite the national base. “His pursuit of legislation this session didn’t seem to come from a grassroots cry from the average Floridian. Instead, it seems like it is coming from … what DeSantis is trying to create,” Jewett said.
Here is some of the key legislation that DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature are pursuing this year, and how the issues they address appeal to conservatives across the country:
Post Secondary Educational Institutions (HB 999)
The pivotal legislation in DeSantis’ push against DEI initiatives, this bill bans colleges from funding “any programs or campus activities that espouse diversity, equity, or inclusion or Critical Race Theory rhetoric.”
Sponsored by GOP state Rep. Alex Andrade of Pensacola, the legislation also would remove “all majors and minors based on or using instruction from Critical Theory, or any derivative subject that engenders beliefs in divisive concepts” and enables all university board of trustees to review professor tenure status at any time.
The bill could ban gender studies, Jewish studies and other degree programs from college campuses. Critics of the bill have also expressed concerns that it would negatively affect Black fraternities and sororities, but Andrade has argued it would not.
Anti-DEI pushes have grown in popularity for national Republicans, whether it be members of Congress grilling the military for using DEI principles in recruitment, or other states also attacking their use on college campuses.
The bill and its Senate companion have yet to be voted on in either chamber, but it has passed several committees along partisan lines.
Child Protection in Public Schools (SB 1320)
A continuation of last year’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, this measure would extend the prohibition on classroom instruction of sexual orientation or gender identity to pre-K through 8th grade, as opposed to the kindergarten-3rd grade imposed last year.
Sponsored by state Sen. Clay Yarborough, a Jacksonville Republican, it also creates a statute that requires “every public K-12 educational institution to have a policy that a person’s sex is an immutable, or unchanging, biological trait and that it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex.” The law would ban school employees from asking students to call them by their preferred pronouns, or from asking students their preferred pronouns.
The choice to focus on legislation that reduces public visibility and acceptance of transgender people is likely to play well with Republicans across the country: 66% percent of Republican or Republican-leaning Americans believe society has gone too far in accepting trans people. As a result, several of the presumed or already filed Republican presidential candidates have incorporated anti-trans rhetoric into their campaigns.
It passed the House Education PreK-12 committee 9-3, but is waiting on its next committee stop.
Protection of Children (HB 1423)
A continuation of bills targeting gender nonconformity, SB 1438 prohibits a person or establishment from knowingly admitting a child to an “adult live performance,” or “depicts or simulates nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement … lewd conduct, or the lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts.”
GOP state Rep. Randy Fine of Brevard County filed the bill in response to a drag queen story-time event in his community. DeSantis’ administration has also targeted drag events across Florida where minors were present, despite undercover officers saying no lewd acts took place.
Similar legislation has been introduced in several Republican-controlled states across the country this year. Drag events have also been targeted by far-right demonstrators over the past year.
Opposing drag performances appears to be a winning issue within Republican circles: 61% of Republican voters support laws that would restrict drag performances.
The bill passed the House Education PreK-12 committee 9-3, but is waiting on its next committee stop.
Treatments for Sex Reassignment (SB 254)
Rounding out the trifecta of LGTBQ related legislation, this bill bans anyone under the age of 18 from receiving sex-reassignment prescriptions and procedures, including hormone therapy and puberty blockers.
Sponsored by Yarborough, the bill could jail and revoke the licenses of any doctor in Florida who offers those services to minors. The state would be allowed to take children away from their families if that child has been receiving gender-affirming care.
Such policy has been a pillar in the recent national divide between the Republican and Democratic parties. Earlier this month, President Joe Biden called the anti-LGTBQ legislation in Florida “cruel” and “close to sinful.” DeSantis’ team responded by releasing a video depicting gender affirming surgeries.
A vote in the Senate on the bill is set for April 3.
Public Safety (HB 543)
One of the most talked-about pieces of legislation this session, this bill would allow any Floridian over the age of 18 to carry a concealed firearm without a permit and without training.
The bill does not, however, go as far as DeSantis would like. The governor has publicly called for constitutional carry, or the ability to carry a firearm unconcealed without a license or permit, to be allowed in the state, but adding that to this bill has not been supported by Republican legislative leadership.
Constitutional carry has been passed in 25 states and is a popular issue among the hard-right wing of the Republican Party. Such legislation is largely unpopular, with a majority of members of both political parties opposing permitless carry.
The legislation has passed the House and Senate and will go to the governor for review.
Immigration (SB 1718)
A longstanding priority for many Republican voters, this bill makes sweeping changes to how undocumented immigrants are treated in Florida.
The bill, among other things, prohibits the state and municipalities from issuing identification cards of any kind to undocumented immigrants, makes any out-of-state identification like driver’s licenses issued to undocumented immigrants invalid, and makes it a third-degree felony for an undocumented immigrant to use a fake ID to gain employment.
Taking a tough stance on immigration remains a priority for many Republicans. About 79% of Republicans believe increasing deportations should be a priority in America, while only 37% believe establishing a way for those here illegally to stay legally should be focused on.
The bill passed the Rules committee 15-5, but is now waiting on its final committee stop.
Pregnancy and Parenting Support (SB 300)
A follow-up to last year’s 15-week abortion ban, this bill would move the limit to six weeks, but include exceptions for cases of rape and incest.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortions in Florida has skyrocketed as individuals from more restrictive states have traveled here. With DeSantis signaling support for the six-week ban, the South’s last remaining bastion of abortion access could go away. However, a pending case involving last year’s 15-week abortion ban that is set to be heard by the state Supreme court (now dominated by DeSantis appointees) could impact this law..
Abortion remains a passionate issue for the more conservative wing of the Republican Party: 73% of conservative Republicans support banning abortion in most cases, while only 38% of moderate Republicans do.
The bill is scheduled to be voted on by the Senate soon.
Defamation and Related Actions (SB 1220)
In his rise to national prominence, DeSantis has regularly butted heads with the news media. With this bill, he is trying to take the fight directly to them.
The legislation would make it easier to sue media outlets and reporters for defamation by lowering the standard set in a landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case. DeSantis has thrown considerable political capital toward this issue, hosting roundtables to air out his problems with the press.
His attacks align with the perspectives of his party’s voters. Only about 14% of Republicans trust the mass media, compared to about 70% of Democrats.
The bill cleared its first committee, and has one more stop before it makes it to the Senate floor.
Death Penalty (SB 450)
After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter escaped the death penalty, DeSantis pushed for the standards to be lowered for someone to receive a death sentence.
Under this bill, only eight of 12 jurors – down from being unanimous – would be required to sentence someone to death, though a judge could still overrule a jury’s decision not to assess the penalty. And another bill (SB 1342) would allow the death penalty for child rapists.
DeSantis this year approved the execution of a man who was convicted under a previous statute that allowed for non-unanimous executions. The death penalty remains a favored form of punishment by Republicans for serious crimes like murder, with 77% of them supporting it.
The Senate voted 29-10 with South Florida Democrats Lauren Book and Jason Pizzo in support. It now awaits consideration by the House.
Contact Tristan Wood at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @TristanDWood.
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