Here’s how Florida Republican lawmakers got their way in 2019

A more active governor, a more conservative Supreme Court and transactional new leaders in the House and Senate led to a wave of successes. Oh, and where were the Democrats?
Left to Right: Senate President Bill Galvano, R- Bradenton, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, House Speaker Jose Oliva, and Lt. Governor Jeanette Nunez all share a laugh during Sine Die at the Capitol on Saturday. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Left to Right: Senate President Bill Galvano, R- Bradenton, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, House Speaker Jose Oliva, and Lt. Governor Jeanette Nunez all share a laugh during Sine Die at the Capitol on Saturday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 4, 2019|Updated May 4, 2019

When the book is written on Florida’s 2019 legislative session, it will be this:

Republican lawmakers, emboldened by a more politically engaged governor, a more conservative Supreme Court and nimble new leaders in the House and Senate, further tightened their grip on power, scratching off several items from a longstanding wish-list of conservative priorities.

On Saturday, in a half day of overtime, lawmakers quickly approved a $91.1 billion budget with record spending on the environment and more spending on public schools.

“There are great wins for conservatives, but there’s also, with the environment stuff, that appeals to a lot of Democrats,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis, who since taking office has forged a new path as an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump who can tack to the left on policies such as teacher pay and the environment. “There’s really something in here, I think, for everybody, in one way or another, so that’s a good thing.”

But this session, it wasn’t about the budget. It was about Florida’s hard right turn.

Private school vouchers. A ban on “sanctuary cities.” Allowing teachers to carry guns. Free market health care reforms. All were done in the last 60 days after years of failures.

Republicans also managed to curtail two future threats to their power — and to their donor base.

Nearly 65 percent of voters in November passed a historic amendment that would have allowed up to 1.4 million felons to vote. Lawmakers this session gutted it, and DeSantis said Saturday he wouldn’t veto it.

In the closing hours of the legislative session Friday night, lawmakers neutered future citizen-driven constitutional amendments, including two aiming for the 2020 ballot and loathed by Republicans. One raises the minimum wage. The other allows “energy choice” in an effort to expand solar energy options.

“These jokers are so owned by special interests that they actually thumbed their noses at democracy and the people,” tweeted the trial attorney John Morgan, who is sponsoring the minimum wage measure, on Saturday. “It is why we hate politicians with a special vengeance!”

Democrats, the minority party in both chambers, lacked the leadership or strategy to make much difference, and in many cases submitted willingly to their conservative colleagues.

In the Senate, they put up no resistance to the president’s top priority, an idea from the Jeb Bush era that includes building a massive toll road through rural parts of the state. It gained traction despite any evidence the project was warranted or coordinated with the necessary participants, such as neighboring states like Georgia or the rural counties where the roads would go.

Yet after little discussion or debate, and heavy criticism from environmental groups, only one Senate Democrat voted against it.

Democrats also repeatedly gave up one of the only tools they have to challenge Republican bills: they can slow the process by tacking on amendments.

At the least, amendments can drag the bill-making process to a crawl and annoy the other party. At best, it can be used to run out the clock on Florida’s 60-day session.

Yet, at a critical stop in the Senate, Democrats withdrew all of their amendments on a highly controversial measure to allow teachers to carry guns in classrooms. Democrats did so in exchange for a vague promise from Republicans to at least consider not arming teachers. They didn’t.

That bill is now on the governor’s desk.

In the House, Minority Leader Kionne McGhee of Miami went a step further. He allowed Republicans to waive the rules and allow bills to be heard and voted on the same day, drastically speeding up the process.

The move was so strange that frustrated members of McGhee’s own party complained he wasn’t doing enough to fight Republicans.

“Thank you for giving us a fair shake,” McGhee told the Florida House’s conservative speaker, José Oliva, on Saturday.

Democrats lost this year by having a “get along, go along” mentality, said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, one of several freshman Democrats in the House who would speak up on issues when more senior members were silent.

She said leadership intentionally kept her off of committees that heard the most controversial issues.

“That’s where some of the tension in the caucus erupted from,” she said. “We have to be a loyal opposition. That’s why we were elected to do this work. If we just go along to get along, then we’re already giving up the very little power that we have in this space.”

But Republican lawmakers also had a valuable incentive to fight harder than before for their priorities.

Over the last two decades, the Florida Supreme Court has been a thorn in Republicans’ side, routinely rejecting their legislation as unconstitutional.

But when Gov. Ron DeSantis was elected last year, he replaced three justices with more conservative members. There are now no justices who were appointed by Democrats.

Lawmakers this year took direct aim at the new court, resurrecting ideas that had been decided by the old court just months earlier.

Perhaps none of those discarded ideas were more significant than allowing students to get public-money vouchers to spend at private schools, funded by the pot of per-student money typically used to fund districts. It was an idea born decades ago by former Gov. Jeb Bush. In 2006, however, the Supreme Court rejected it.

With the court neutralized, this year, the Legislature passed it — and Bush came to Tallahassee for a victory lap.

“I don’t think we ever would have tried what we did this year under the old Supreme Court," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, “because we know it would have gone right into the ditch.”

Unlike under former Gov. Rick Scott, who lawmakers complained was not communicative, DeSantis and his staff worked mostly in concert with the Legislature, applying pressure in public and in private to get his priorities passed.

Lawmakers passed a ban on “sanctuary cities,” one of DeSantis’ campaign priorities, even though it had failed for several years in a row and lawmakers could identify no city or policy that was actually a “sanctuary” for undocumented immigrants.

Meanwhile, the new leaders of Florida’s House and Senate seemed more willing to trade with each other.

Before session began, Speaker Oliva of Miami Lakes huddled with his closest lieutenants to craft a master list of priorities, with 20 devoted to Oliva’s dearest cause: imposing free-market principles of health care.

It was a goal that had eluded Republican lawmakers for decades, oftentimes stymied by the more cautious Senate. But Oliva flagged it early on as his legislative make-or-break — and this year, the Senate listened.

Or, rather, the Senate traded. In exchange for sweeping changes to hospital regulations that Oliva desired, Senate President Bill Galvano got his top priority — the toll roads project, which Democrats let him have.

The horse trading between the chambers was so brazen that Lee told his Senate colleagues it “stinks to high heaven” and “makes a mockery of the entire committee process of this institution.”

Another item on Oliva’s wishlist — pursuing the importation of prescription drugs from abroad — also found a powerful advocate in DeSantis himself, who publicly lobbied on behalf of the idea during the session.

Even smaller issues that had become perennial session fights were accomplished this year. Republicans continued to erode the power of cities and counties, and they passed reforms that were a victory to insurers and business groups.

DeSantis guaranteed there would be some vetos over the next two weeks, but wouldn’t say what was on his list. But he praised Galvano and Oliva for following through on the “bold action” he vowed when he took office.

“At the end of the day, you really can’t do far-reaching things unless you’re able to get this stuff through the Legislative process," DeSantis said. “If you look down the line, they delivered big wins for the people of Florida.”