TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Republicans in Florida have given Gov. Ron DeSantis everything he needs ahead of a likely 2024 presidential bid.
During a five-day special legislative session that ended on Friday, the Republican-dominated House and Senate approved seven bills, including high-priority measures that will expand its controversial migrant-transport program, give Florida a greater control over Disney World and will strengthen the prosecution’s power over voting violations. Each of the measures builds on previously passed laws that have left unresolved issues or faced legal hurdles.
Taken together, the bills give DeSantis a win list he can highlight to conservative voters across the country if he jumps in the 2024 presidential race.
“The reality is that we have a governor who is staging a presidential bid, and this is basically his attempt to buy media time on Fox News,” Congresswoman Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) said during Friday’s floor debate. against a special session bill that would expand a DeSantis-backed migrant flight program.
Republican legislative leaders called the special session at the urging of but downplayed suggestions by DeSantis that they had been reluctantly pushed by the governor. Yet they could not answer basic questions about the bills before the legislature passed the measures.
“You guys are asking questions and I can’t wait to talk about them. But I think the governor is on the right track,” spokesman Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast) told reporters Friday when asked how the state has spent millions on the migrant flight program.
The migrant proposal approved by lawmakers expands on the controversial schedule DeSantis used to fly nearly 50 migrants, mostly Venezuelans, from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in September. The new bill allows the state to spend money moving migrants from anywhere in the United States, not just those currently in Florida. A Democratic state lawmaker, Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-Miami), sued DeSantis last year, arguing that the $12 million previously allocated to the program only allowed the state to transport migrants who were in Florida.
However, questions remain about how the state has spent millions of dollars that lawmakers previously earmarked for the migrant transportation program. In September, DeSantis paid an outside vendor — who was a former legal client of the governor’s public safety czar, Larry Keefe — to bring migrants to Massachusetts. Florida paid at least $1.5 million to arrange several rounds of flights from Texas to Democratic strongholds in September, but later approved an additional $1.9 million in payments in October that the governor’s office has yet to publicly explain .
Public records also later showed that Keefe used a private email account that made the messages appear to come from “Clarice Starling,” the protagonist of “The Silence of the Lambs,” while coordinating the program.
Renner said he could not answer questions about whether DeSantis administrative personnel should use private emails that hide their real identities because he did not know enough about Keefe’s emails.
During a Wednesday news conference, Senate Speaker Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) said she was “above my pay grade, or a different pay grade I guess I should say” when asked about the program details. She asked questions of Emergency Management Division director Kevin Guthrie, who will be in charge of the migrant flight schedule under the special session bill given final passage on Friday.
During a lengthy Senate hearing Wednesday, Pizzo grilled the bill’s sponsor, State Senator Blaise Ingoglia (R-Spring Hill), about his proposal, but Ingoglia has repeatedly said he could not comment on the program due to litigation. in progress.
Lawmakers this week were also unable to answer questions about a measure passed by lawmakers that allows a state prosecutor to charge individuals with election-related crimes. The change came after the Office of Election Crimes and Security, created by DeSantis, highlighted last August the arrest of 20 people for allegedly illegal voting in the 2020 election because they had previous convictions for serious crimes such as murder.
Those arrests, however, came under scrutiny after POLITICO and other media outlets reported that the defendants had been told by state and local election officials that they were allowed to vote. Judges launched charges against three defendants in part because the state prosecution office lacks jurisdiction in voter fraud cases. The bill approved by lawmakers now makes clear that the bureau has the authority to make such charges.
However, lawmakers approved the office changes without knowing whether they would apply retroactively to defendants who had already been indicted by the Office of Statewide Prosecution.
“I can’t answer that,” Passidomo said during his Wednesday press conference. “Generally I would say these bills are not retroactive.”
Renner on Friday said he too wasn’t sure, but thought the bill could be retroactive. Regardless, he said, the bill was needed because DeSantis’ new office racked up early court losses.
“These new rules will be debated in the courts and the courts will determine what can or cannot be applied retroactively,” he said. “What we are doing here is making sure that the jurisdictional issue is resolved. There are some cases that have gone the other way, so we want to make sure we have the ability to do what we always do, make it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”
Lawmakers also this week approved a bill giving Florida and DeSantis greater control over the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which granted Disney World the right to self-governance at its Orlando-based theme park for more than five decades. Lawmakers stripped Disney World of its self-governing status last year after senior Disney officials publicly criticized a Florida law that bars teachers from conducting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms from kindergarten up to third grade. The law is widely known as “Don’t Say Gay”.
Lawmakers renamed the district, stripped away some little-used powers and gave DeSantis more authority over the company by creating a five-person supervisory board that he will appoint.
The week before the session began, DeSantis publicly pressed lawmakers to convene in Tallahassee to pass the Disney bill and hinted at other unspecified priorities. Lawmakers were quietly concerned that the session had been called too early and that a Disney-centric bill was not yet ready. Lawmakers introduced the Disney bill last and had to amend it, adding to the feeling that the special session was rushed.
“This legislation was not rushed at all, as has been reported,” Fred Hawkins, the St. Cloud Republican who sponsored the bill, said Friday, acknowledging the open perception that lawmakers needed to rush the bill. “That was thought, that’s why the bill was so high.”
Republican legislative leaders also defended their decision to convene a sixth legislative session in less than a year to help set priorities previously approved by DeSantis. The governor or legislative leader has called two special sessions in 2021 and four in 2022.
“I think we often have special sessions,” Renner said on Friday. “As I said, we don’t wait to solve problems, and each of these accounts had a certain time sensitivity in my mind.”