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Amid pandemic, Florida’s Republican Legislature tilts hard right

GOP lawmakers are fast-tracking a slate of politically-divisive proposals long-sought by the Legislature’s more conservative members.
Florida Senator Wilton Simpson, R- Trilby, left, greets Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, right, during a joint session of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, January 14, 2020.
Florida Senator Wilton Simpson, R- Trilby, left, greets Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, right, during a joint session of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, January 14, 2020. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]
Published Feb. 3

TALLAHASSEE — Amid a global pandemic, dozens of people traveled to and gathered inside a Florida House committee room last week to protest a bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican leaders say is necessary to clamp down on violent protests.

It was a heated two-hour meeting. About 70 speakers lambasted the bill, which many of them said is an unnecessary attempt to squelch their right to peaceably assemble.

“This bill is not only absurd and unsafe, but I find it deeply disturbing that in the height of a pandemic this is one of the first bills that y’all are hearing,” said Alyssa Ackbar, a representative for the March for Our Lives Florida chapter and opponent of the measure, House Bill 1.

Florida is coming off a year defined by the coronavirus pandemic. The state is still reeling from disease and economic and emotional strife. But in Florida’s Capitol, during the weeks leading up to the 60-day 2021 legislative session, Republican leaders are making a lot of noise about other matters.

GOP lawmakers are fast-tracking a slate of politically-divisive proposals long-sought by the Legislature’s more conservative members, a shift that is underscored by political victories in November that have solidified the GOP grip on the Legislature.

Those measures include bills that crack down on unions, a conservative-backed “intellectual diversity” survey for college students, proposals regulating “Big Tech,” and the DeSantis-backed protest bill that emerged following last summer’s nationwide Black Lives Matter protests over racial inequities.

Emboldened by gains in the state Senate and House and Trump’s statewide victory, newly-elected Republican state Sen. Ray Rodrigues of Estero believes more conservative bills will be heard in the Legislature this year than in previous years because “the state has shifted to the right.”

“If you look at President Trump’s vote total and the margin of victory in the 2020 election compared to the 2016 election, what that tells me is that the state has moved to the right,” Rodrigues said, noting that a more conservative agenda is a “natural progression” in Florida.

Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, characterized some of these measures as “statement bills” that Republicans will use as “sound bites” when they run for office in the future.

“This is flexing of muscles because they are feeling empowered,” Cruz said. “We are in the midst of a pandemic and a tough time, and we are running these statement bills. The truth is, it is just a waste of our time here.”

Campaign fodder

Political leaders appealing to their base with legislation is an age-old Tallahassee tactic. But it’s been an especially prominent feature of DeSantis’ two years in office, and is again one month into his third year.

DeSantis is positioning himself for his re-election bid in 2022, which advisers say he wants to follow with a run for president in 2024. To get there, he will need to recapture the GOP base momentum Trump harnessed in 2020, when he won Florida by nearly four points, a huge increase from his narrow 2016 victory. Republican leaders in the House and Senate, who strengthened their majority in November, also face the uncertainty brought on by redistricting in 2022, when some may be forced to seek re-election in newly-drawn districts.

One strategy they all can agree on is to use the legislative session to hew to the reliable conservative issues that energize Republican voters.

In 2019, DeSantis pushed for a statewide ban on so-called “sanctuary cities” even though there were none in Florida. Then, in 2020, he led the effort to implement E-Verify, a federal system to check employees immigration status, and backed a bill that required parental consent for abortions. The measures were key promises he made to voters on the campaign trail and in his State of the State speech. The Republican-dominated Legislature passed all three bills, and DeSantis signed them.

In 2021, with Florida facing an estimated $2.7 billion revenue shortfall and its unemployment system less than a year out from implosion, DeSantis, House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson have gathered for news conferences to discuss two bills: anti-riot measures and curbing the influence of large technology companies.

The riot bill was DeSantis’ first priority. He proposed the idea in the heat of the 2020 election as he tried to deliver Florida to then-President Donald Trump.

He used it to promote a message of “law and order,” a refrain among Republican politicians. However, he acknowledged that protests in Florida were largely peaceful and that the bill was meant to prevent the kind civil unrest seen in other parts of the country.

In practice, the riot bills lawmakers have filed would enhance penalties for crimes that already exist, and it would make it harder for cities and municipalities to cut law-enforcement spending in response to calls to “defund” the police.

“It’s destined to pass. What the final product will look like? I don’t know. But there is no version of this bill that I could ever see myself, or my Democratic colleagues, embracing,” said Rep. Michael Grieco, a Miami Beach Democrat.

‘Let us speak’

The anti-”Big Tech” press conference came Tuesday. At the event, Republican leaders painted a picture of monopolistic companies run by California liberal elites bent on silencing conservative voices. DeSantis made multiple references to George Orwell’s novel “1984,” which portrays a dystopia where thought is controlled by the government — not private companies.

Taking on “Big Tech” is important, he said, because conservatives rely on social media to not let “corporate legacy media outlets control the discourse.”

“Let us speak,”DeSantis said, while complaining about media outlets discrediting a damaging New York Post story about Hunter Biden. He claimed “Big Tech put its thumb on the scale” to stop the story from gaining traction.

“You’re trying to tell me if there was information that could damage me you guys wouldn’t print it? Give me a break, you can whizz on my leg but don’t tell me it’s raining,” DeSantis told reporters. “You guys would print it every single day if you could and Big Tech would allow it to proliferate.”

DeSantis’ proposal would add to a bill filed by Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephryhills, which would require social media companies to give users written notice after temporarily or permanently suspending an account.

Florida law would also mandate that companies allow users to opt out of algorithms that tailor the content they see in their feeds. These provisions would be enforced by allowing Floridians and the attorney general’s office to bring private actions against the companies, DeSantis said.

If these proposals become law, they might not be viewed favorably by American courts, said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University College of Law. The First Amendment protects individuals and companies from government speech mandates, she said. It’s difficult to pass a law telling a company what it must tell its users without running afoul of the Constitution.

“If the Florida Legislature goes down this path, they’re likely to run into a buzz saw of the First Amendment,” Torres-Spelliscy said.

It’s also legally dicey for individual states to enforce laws against companies that operate nationally, which could be viewed as disruptive to interstate commerce, the law professor said.

Most of the proposals touted Tuesday have not yet been drafted into the form of legislation.

However, prominent state Sen. Joe Gruters, who doubles as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, has filed legislation that would bar Florida from doing business with five large technology companies, which he says discriminate against conservatives. It’s unclear what effect that measure, aimed at Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter or Apple would mean for the day-to-day operations of Florida’s government.

Meanwhile, Rodrigues has a bill that would require Florida’s public universities and colleges to survey students on their political beliefs. He said it is needed to fight “cancel culture” on campus. The impetus for the bill is anecdotal.

It is a measure that in 2019, former Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, a prominent Fleming Island Republican, warned would “keep coming up again” and urged his Republican colleagues in the chamber to shut it down every time.

However, Rodrigues is reviving the push this year and says it is needed because out-of-state conservative students have told him they are concerned that they have to self-censor their conservative viewpoints at school. But he admits there are no reported cases of that happening in Florida.

“Rather than just take isolated incidents, and assume that there’s a pattern, I think the responsible thing to do from a public policy standpoint, is to do a survey … and find out if this is a problem across university and college campuses,” Rodrigues said.

Rodrigues is also sponsoring legislation that he says will ensure workers have a final say on the money they earn, while Democrats cast it as “union busting.” It would add a new step in which government employers would have to confirm with workers that they want union dues taken out of their pay before the deductions could start.

The Senate’s conservative stripes

Rodrigues’ bills are examples of politically divisive measures that have been long-sought by conservatives in the House, but that the Senate was hesitant to embrace. The fact that such bills are getting early hearings, a month before the start of session, is a signal that they have the support of leadership in either the House or the Senate chamber.

It is also a reflection of the post-election right-shift of the Senate, which for a long time has acted as the main impediment to the House’s more conservative legislative ambitions.

Now, the new class of state senators includes three former House Republicans and Sen. Ileana Garcia, the co-founder of Latinas for Trump. Garcia beat Democratic incumbent José Javier Rodríguez by a mere 34 votes in November, and unexpectedly flipped Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37.

“I believe this Senate is a little more conservative than previous versions of the Senate, so that means conservative bills will have a better shot of getting heard,” said Rodrigues, a member of this new class of senators.

When asked about pandemic-related policy priorities, Rodrigues said he thinks “the pandemic will dominate our session, both in policy and budget.”

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence as the first bill that both chambers heard dealt with business liability related to the pandemic,” he said. “And that’s not going to be the only action that either chamber takes on the pandemic.”

Opponents of the liability bill argue it raises the burden of proof so high that it will make it almost impossible for anyone who accuses an employer or business of endangering them during the pandemic.

Rodrigues suspects fixes to the state’s beleaguered unemployment system, CONNECT, will be a GOP priority that is at the “top of the list” or “very close to the top of the list.”

However, he did not know when the roll out of such a measure could be expected. No House or Senate committee had heard an unemployment-related bill as of Tuesday.