Florida Government News for April was my last post before my pause to focus on the midterm elections. In this post, I am resuming my monthly recaps with highlights of the top stories over the last seven months.
Re-reading the April post, I was struck by how much has happened since then. I encourage you to re-read it, too, for help remembering where we left off.
Special sessions on property insurance
In May, DeSantis called the Legislature into a second special session to do something to address the state’s insurance crisis. A first special session was held in April to produce a congressional redistricting map after DeSantis refused to sign the one passed by the Legislature during the normal session.
In the May session, two bills were passed and signed into law. The first, on property insurance, helps insurers with their risk portfolio by creating reinsurance to assist policyholders. The second, on building safety, requires condominiums to have thorough inspections and includes an entire section about the roofing system. Lawmakers expect the impact of the legislation to be noticed in about 18 months. (WUFT Public Media)
DeSantis and legislative leaders have scheduled another special session on insurance to be held Dec. 12-16. DeSantis said he wants to provide property tax cuts to victims of Hurricane Ian and pass legislation to further bolster the beleaguered property insurance industry. (Florida Politics)
On Nov. 22, Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) and Rep. Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast) were sworn in as Senate President and House Speaker, respectively. Passidomo and Renner then unveiled their legislative priorities and visions for their two-year terms.
Senate President Kathleen Passidomo
Passidomo spoke of the need to work together “to ensure Florida’s children will have a world-class education in a safe environment, … that their parents will have good paying jobs and affordable places to live and raise their families, and our seniors will be cherished and protected as they enter their golden years.” (Passidomo Press Release)
She said that safe, attainable workforce housing will be a top priority. And she said that “we are going to continue our fight to protect family values” because “whether it is education, health or sports, keeping the parents in the dark is unacceptable.”
House Speaker Paul Renner
Renner, too, embraced the need for bipartisan cooperation in his remarks, “pledg[ing] to every member of the minority party that we will have robust debate. (Renner News Release)
He also pledged to reduce taxes, tackle runaway insurance costs, make housing more attainable, and confront the causes driving up the price of fuel and electric bills. And he announced a plan to develop a new House committee structure “to develop strategic solutions for the future of our water supply, water quality, transportation, land conservation, and resiliency.”
Like Passidomo, he spoke of the importance of public education, while also leaning into some key Republican concerns in the last election, including “idealogues”’ indoctrination of school children.
DeSantis signed the 2022-23 state budget of $109.9 billion on Jun. 2, slashing $3.1 billion in line-item vetoes from what was approved by the Legislature in the spring.
The veto list includes projects that are both local in nature but also can have statewide impacts, such as $840 million for prison construction (Florida Politics) and $75 million for an Environmental & Oceanographic Sciences Research & Teaching Facility for the University of South Florida. (FOX News)
He also vetoed a controversial Everglades bill that, even after being watered down during the legislative session, continued to draw concerns about potential wetlands destruction. (News Service of Florida)
DeSantis also vetoed the Legislature’s approach to school recognition awards this year. In its budget, it penalized a dozen school districts that imposed mask mandates last year against the rules and guidelines set forth by the DeSantis administration. DeSantis said the recognition money is intended for schools, and that those that have earned it should not be denied the funds because of a decision their district made. (Tampa Bay Times)
Voting & Elections
In April, DeSantis signed into law SB 524, a bill “to ensure that Florida continues to have secure and accurate elections.” Among other things, the new law established an Office of Election Crimes and Security (OECS) to investigate election law violations. (DeSantis News Release)
In August, DeSantis announced that the OECS election police unit had made 20 arrests. (DeSantis News Release)
Most of the arrests involved Black voters accused of voting illegally in 2020. Many said they registered and voted because they had been told they were eligible due to changes in voting rights laws for those previously convicted of felonies who completed their sentences (Florida’s 2018 Amendment 4). The arrests prompted a national outcry and caused more confusion about Florida’s voter eligibility laws. (Washington Post)
A week after DeSantis announced the arrests, his administration required Floridians on probation to sign an updated form, placing the burden on them to determine if they’re eligible to vote. (Tampa Bay Times)
In an unusual move, DeSantis endorsed a total of 30 candidates running in local school board races. He pumped money into their campaigns via his Friends of Ron DeSantis Super PAC and took part in two statewide tours to show support for those he backed. In all, 25 of DeSantis’s 30 candidates were elected, “solidifying his influence over state education policy.” (The74)
In August, DeSantis removed four members of the Broward County school board, after a grand jury empaneled to investigate a 2018 school massacre accused them and district administrators of “deceit, malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty and incompetence” in their handling of a campus safety program. DeSantis replaced the ousted four, all Democrats, with Republicans. Broward is a Democratic stronghold, with that party holding a 2-to-1 majority. DeSantis has now appointed five of the nine school board members. (Associated Press)
In a related move, the Department of Education in September sent letters to the superintendents of four school districts (Broward, Duval, Orange, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach) warning of failures to follow the state’s school safety requirements. All five school districts are also facing state scrutiny for underreporting criminal activity on campus, according to the letter. (Florida Politics)
Medicaid Ban on Gender-Affirming Care
In August, the state Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA), headed by a DeSantis appointee, issued a rule that denies Medicaid coverage for treatments such as puberty-blocking medication and hormone therapy for transgender people. The move came after the agency published a report claiming there was not enough scientific evidence to prove that the treatments improved health. (Politico Florida)
Migrant Relocation Program
In a surprise announcement on Sep. 28, DeSantis’ office announced sending two planes with migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. DeSantis claimed responsibility for the flights as part of a campaign to focus attention on what he has called the Biden administration’s failed border policies. He was joining Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in the tactic of sending migrants to Democratic strongholds without advance warning. (Associated Press)
Earlier this year, the Legislature approved a $12 million budget item to relocate people in the U.S. illegally from Florida to another location. The money came from interest earned from federal funds given to Florida under the American Rescue Plan. (Associated Press)
Despite months of public records requests and two pending lawsuits from the Florida Center for Government Accountability, the DeSantis administration continues to withhold details about the program, according to the Miami Herald. Documents show a total of $3.4 million paid to date for “relocation services” to Vertol Systems Company, a Destin-based aviation company with “a powerful political connection.” (Miami Herald)
Important Executive Branch appointments made in the past several months include:
Supreme Court Justice Renatha Francis
DeSantis appointed Renatha Francis, 44, a circuit judge in Palm Beach County, to the seat created by the retirement of Justice Alan Lawson, a nominee of then-Gov. Rick Scott. (Governor DeSantis News Release)
The appointment gives DeSantis a four-member majority of hand-picked state Supreme Court justices, the others being Justices Carlos Muñiz, Jamie Grosshans, and John Couriel. Francis is also the fourth DeSantis pick with ties to the Federalist Society, an organization of conservatives and libertarians that argues for a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution when judges issue rulings. (Orlando Sentinel)
Secretary of State Cord Byrd
The Governor appointed attorney Cord Byrd to serve as Florida’s next Secretary of State, whose duties include overseeing the state’s election process. A member of the Florida House of Representatives since 2016, Byrd has been a staunch advocate for election security, public integrity, the fight against big tech censorship, and the de-platforming of political candidates. (DeSantis News Release)
State University Chancellor Ray Rodrigues
Former State Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-Estero) took office as Chancellor of the State University System on Nov. 9. The chancellor serves as the System’s CEO, overseeing 12 institutions that serve more than 430,000 students and a multibillion-dollar budget. (Florida University System News Release)
Rodrigues was by far the most politically connected candidate of eight people who applied for the chancellor job. Unsuccessful candidates say he was “hired as an ally of the governor by a state board stocked with DeSantis appointees.” (Inside Higher Ed)
State Education Commissioner Manny Diaz
Manny Diaz Jr. was appointed to another term as Education Commissioner five months after he was first named to the post. Diaz has been an influential voice on state education policy since he was first elected to the Florida House in 2012 and then moved to the Senate in 2018. (News Service of Florida)
In his abbreviated first term, Diaz led the Department of Education’s implementation of several controversial measures approved by the Legislature earlier this year. Those include an overhaul of the state’s K-12 testing system, ensuring instruction on race and gender does not make students feel guilty about their race or gender, and more regulation of schools’ conversations and instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation. (Florida Politics)
Before becoming Education Commissioner, Diaz was Chief Operating Officer at Doral College, which is affiliated with and funded by charter schools and charter school management companies. (South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Suspension of Hillsborough County State Attorney
In August, DeSantis removed twice-elected Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren from office for what he said was Warren’s disregard for his duty to enforce state laws, including a pledge not to prosecute people receiving an abortion or their doctors performing them. (Governor DeSantis News Release)
At the same time, DeSantis appointed Hillsborough County Judge Susan Lopez as Warren’s replacement. Lopez, a longtime assistant state attorney the governor had recently named a county judge, is a member of the Federalist Society. (Miami Herald)
Over the summer, there were developments in several significant lawsuits involving the State of Florida. Unless otherwise noted, the cases are ongoing.
Read my backgrounder on Why You Should Care About Florida’s Lawsuits.
Florida Challenging Federal Laws
Mask Mandate on Public Transportation
In August, State Attorney General Ashley Moody and other Republican politicians from across the country urged an appeals court to uphold a federal judge’s ruling that blocked a mask requirement on airplanes and in other transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic. (City & State Florida)
They won the appeal, and in October, the U.S. Supreme Court let the lower court’s ruling stand. (The Hill)
In addition to flying immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, the DeSantis administration has also targeted the Biden administration’s immigration policies in the courts.
In April, Florida, along with Alabama and Georgia, filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the Biden administration is not properly deporting undocumented immigrants who commit crimes. (Moody News Release)
That case is currently on hold pending the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Texas, which argues that Congress, not the Executive, establishes immigration policy and that a Biden administration policy allowing criminals to remain in the U.S. violates federal law. (Moody News Release)
Florida Defending Florida Laws
“We are now in the court-case chapter of election season,” writes Miami Herald Capitol Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas in this week’s Politics & Policy in the Sunshine State Newsletter. “Many of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new policies that attracted headlines during the election were challenged in court, and now the cases are piling up.”
Ban on Sanctuary Cities
Florida’s 2019 law banning so-called sanctuary cities was challenged by the City of South Miami and immigrant-advocacy groups. Last year, a federal judge ruled that part of the law is unconstitutional, with her decision relying in part on support for the law among “anti-immigrant hate groups.” (Reuters)
Moody’s office is suing to overturn that decision in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In May, seventeen Republican attorneys general filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting the ban. (News Service of Florida)
Lawsuits challenging the congressional redistricting map drawn by DeSantis were filed in both state and federal court.
The state court case was filed by the League of Women Voters of Florida, Equal Ground Education Fund, Black Voters Matter Capacity Institute, and Florida Rising Together. (LWVF Press Release)
In May, a state court judge agreed the map was unconstitutional, because it “diminishes African Americans’ ability to elect the representative of their choice.” But an appeals court overturned his decision, and the Florida Supreme Court declined to weigh in, saying it did not have jurisdiction. As a result, the Governor’s map remained in place for the November elections. (Washington Post)
The federal case was filed by Common Cause, FairDistricts NOW, the Florida NAACP, and five individual plaintiffs. With the elections now over, this lawsuit will continue to the discovery phase. (Common Cause Florida Press Release)
Voting & Elections
Several lawsuits were filed to challenge a handful of sections of Florida’s 2021 elections bill (SB 90), claiming they place an unconstitutional burden on the fundamental right to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment.
In March, federal Judge Mark E. Walker ruled that key provisions of the bill equated to voter suppression and issued an injunction barring enforcement. (Associated Press; League of Women Voters of Florida Press Release)
The State appealed Walker’s decision and it was placed on hold while the appeal is litigated. (Press Release)
Oral arguments before the appellate court were heard in September, but the law remained in effect for the November elections.
15-Week Abortion Ban
After lower courts repeatedly closed off meaningful legal avenues to block the state’s 15-week abortion ban (HB 5), Florida healthcare providers in August asked the Florida Supreme Court to review their case. It will be the first test of whether the Supreme Court will overturn its decades-old precedent protecting abortion rights and let the state enact harsher bans. (Forbes)
Stop WOKE Act
In April, the 2022 Individual Freedom Act (aka “Stop WOKE Act”) became law. The law has two parts: one applies to discussing racism and its history in the workplace; the other addresses issues of racism in public schools. (FLGov Handout)
Four lawsuits have been filed challenging the law: one by K-12 teachers and a student, two by college professors and students, and a fourth by private entities. U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker held the initial hearings on all four cases.
In June, Judge Walker denied requests to block the law in the K-12 case, finding that four of the plaintiffs lacked legal standing. (News Service of Florida)
In August, he found for the plaintiffs in the private business case and blocked a key provision of the law. He said the restrictions were overly broad and “naked viewpoint-based regulation” aimed at particular ideas that DeSantis and other Florida lawmakers don’t like. (NYTimes)
DeSantis and Moody filed an appeal of that decision the following month. (Tampa Bay Times)
In the higher education case, Judge Walker in November blocked parts of the law that restricted conversations about race in public colleges and universities, calling them “positively dystopian.” DeSantis said he would appeal. (Washington Post)
Medicaid Ban on Gender-Affirming Care
Four transgender Floridians have sued AHCA, alleging that the rule that bars the state Medicaid program from reimbursing patients for most forms of gender-affirming care is discriminatory and illegal. (Politico Florida)
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in November denied a preliminary injunction request from a coalition of transgender rights groups seeking to stop the rule. (Politico Florida)
Migrant Relocation Program
Immigrant rights groups have sued DeSantis and the state’s transportation secretary in federal court, challenging the constitutionality of the state’s migrant relocation program. The Martha’s Vineyard flight (above) has also spawned lawsuits accusing Florida of lying to the migrants in San Antonio to get them to agree to the flights. (Fox News)
Suspension of State Attorney
Andrew Warren challenged his suspension by DeSantis as Hillsborough County State Attorney (see above), claiming it was clearly motivated by politics. The three-day trial concluded on Dec. 1. Judge Hinkle said it will be at least two weeks before he rules. An appeal is expected. (Associated Press)
Most of what happens when the Legislature is not in session is usually fairly mundane. State agencies get to work implementing new laws and otherwise continue their year-round activities.
This year, with a much more politicized environment, amplified by it being an election year and DeSantis’ national profile, Florida was often in the news.
I hope that after reading this recap, you feel more informed and better prepared to follow news from our Florida government going forward.
As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me.