Florida Legislature convenes amid culture wars, critical needs

The governor usually wields influence in the legislative session, but Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda may play an especially large role this year.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, applauds Gov. Ron DeSantis as he waves at lawmakers and guests in the House chamber at the Capitol in Tallahassee following his State of the State address during opening day of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, applauds Gov. Ron DeSantis as he waves at lawmakers and guests in the House chamber at the Capitol in Tallahassee following his State of the State address during opening day of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 9, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — On Nov. 7, Melinda Jackson’s landlord told her she was ending the lease on the three-bedroom home in a quiet suburban neighborhood of Sarasota that Jackson had rented for seven years, forcing her to move by Jan. 5 so the landlord could sell.

Jackson, 56, a single medical assistant who makes $16 an hour, frantically started filling out rental applications and paying application fees, only to be told repeatedly she had been put on a waiting list.

As panic set in, Jackson turned to the online neighborhood app Nextdoor with a call for help. “Time is running out and I still can’t find a place to live,” she wrote. “...If anyone knows of anything coming up in early January (moving during the holidays can you imagine) please, please let me know.”

The post touched a nerve. But instead of getting ideas for a place to rent, she got more than 400 responses, mostly from people in the same situation. There were young and old families, people caring for sick relatives, teachers, police officers and medical assistants like herself.

“This is the new face of homelessness,” Jackson said in an interview a week before her move-out date. “They are not drug addicts or have mental health issues. These are everyday, hard-working families that can’t find affordable housing.”

As Florida legislators convene their annual legislative session on Tuesday, Jackson’s dilemma highlights the disconnect between politics and reality in Florida.

There is no legislation drafted to address the state’s growing housing crisis. Gov. Ron DeSantis has proposed putting more money into existing affordable housing programs, which experts say mostly help homeowners more than tenants, whose rents have risen a record 30 percent in some parts of Florida.

Related: Tampa Bay's rent increased by a record 24 percent in 2021, the highest in nation

The Republican governor is seeking reelection in 2022, and critics say he has directed his priorities elsewhere — to a range of emotionally charged cultural issues that he has highlighted in a series of news conferences with legislative leaders.

DeSantis has announced proposals to create a state office to police elections, build a state guard to augment the National Guard, and spend Florida resources on moving “unauthorized aliens” out of the state.

He wants to give parents the right to sue school districts if they teach what’s known as “critical race theory,” a 1980s legal concept that holds that racial disparities are systemic in the United States, and he wants to give employees the ability to sue employers who engage in “diversity training.”

“What we’re seeing with ‘wokeness’ is an attempt to delegitimize our institutions and our history,” DeSantis said at a December news conference announcing his Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act. “...When you hear ‘equity’ used, that is just an ability for people to smuggle in their ideology because we don’t need to have those terms.”

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Related: 10 things DeSantis wants from Florida lawmakers next year

The proposals also call for schools to teach about “the evils of communism and totalitarian ideologies” and allow college students to record lectures, with a professor’s permission, to possibly use as evidence in complaints about political bias at the university.

Legislators from both parties see the governor’s agenda as intended to stoke interest from a national audience as DeSantis flirts with the idea of a potential run for president in 2024. Following each of these announcements, the governor’s campaign fundraising team sent pitches to followers and supporters, hoping to generate contributions.

“I fully expect this to be a red meat year, where a vast majority of the governor’s priorities are focused on securing the base — not the state base, but the national base,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who will retire this year because of term limits.

Election year overshadows session

While previous governors have had to cajole and muscle lawmakers to influence the 60-day legislative session, DeSantis’ national profile and the rare convergence of so many elections for state office this year have Republican lawmakers taking their cue from him more than ever.

Not only is 2022 a midterm election year, in which the governor and three independently elected members of the Cabinet are up for reelection, it also is a redistricting year in which the political boundaries of all 120 state House districts and all 40 state Senate districts will change.

“Most legislators are just planning to draft behind the top of the ticket,” Brandes said. So if lawmakers can help DeSantis achieve his goals, they expect him to “help them win their primary, especially as redistricting approaches and they may be drawn into districts against one another.”

Brandes predicts legislators won’t tackle the complex housing crisis this session because “it’s not a vote-driving issue — yet.”

But Florida’s budget is fortified for the second year with billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief money, and legislators have nearly $100 billion to spend.

DeSantis is proposing spending $355 million on existing affordable housing programs, which could mean the largest amount spent on the issue in more than a decade. But the governor has not embraced giving local governments more flexibility and the ability to offer more rent relief, as some legislators want.

Similar questions have been raised about other emerging crises in property and auto insurance and industry labor shortages. As the 60-day legislative session gets set to begin, lawmakers have yet to propose legislation to tackle those issues.

Legislative leaders, who like the governor have refrained from doing individual interviews, have not outlined their session plans. Some bills already have been passed by committees, a sign they are priorities. Among them, a proposal sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, the head of the Florida Republican Party and a Sarasota Republican, which would make school board elections partisan.

National playbook

So why focus on emotionally charged cultural issues over pocketbook issues in a pivotal election year?

Social scientists who study culture wars say that driving votes on Election Day is always a motivating factor for legislatures, and DeSantis and GOP leaders are following the national playbook by exploiting divisions exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Even if the governor of Florida were not so visibly positioning himself for national office, he would still probably be doing what he’s doing and so would the Republican Party in Florida,” said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who writes a weekly politics column for The Wall Street Journal.

Unlike complex economic policies that appeal to portions of the electorate, cultural issues often “are both broader and potentially more intense and so Republican operatives, I think for good reason, have been drawn to this expanding agenda of social issues as a high ground to fight the battles on,” he said.

Last year, Republican legislators sparred with Democrats over transgender athletes, “anti-riot” legislation, COVID lockdowns and vaccine mandates. This year, they are teeing up contentious issues of school board control, critical race theory, voter fraud, “wokeness” in state institutions and illegal immigration.

Galston said he believes that the GOP agenda in Florida is designed to expand the Republican base by tapping into anxieties about schools and the labor market brought on by the pandemic.

The message from Republicans is that liberal elites are using their influence to impose ideologies on their families in schools while stepping on individual liberties with mask and vaccine mandates.

“With a lot of kids being out of school or needing more help from home, parents have gotten much deeper involved in what their students are learning and how it’s being presented and shaped,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. “It is an awareness that the ‘awoke’ movement has elements to it that are very detrimental to the America that we know, and we want them to have skills rather than indoctrination.”

For example, he said, when people talk about “equity, they’re really talking about distribution of resources” and redistribution of wealth and, “underlying this is the history of socialism and communist countries.”

For that reason, Baxley said, “anything that is a concern of the governor will definitely be in discussion and the Legislature is to be responsive to what he’s highlighting.”

The counterpoint from Democrats is that Republicans are ignoring a shrinking safety net for working Floridians while the governor’s focus on critical race theory — an issue Florida’s schools say they don’t teach — and animosity over diversity training in the workplace aggravates existing racial tensions and wastes taxpayer money.

“Not only is what the governor proposing fake and ridiculous, it will cause racial division and is antithetical to everything that the Republicans have ever stood for — allowing private lawsuits against the school district and then not allowing companies their diversity training,” said Sen. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat and employment lawyer. “It’s insane to me.”

Senate Education Committee vice chairperson Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat, says he considers the debate an attempt by Republicans to “whitewash” history.

“Unless Republicans believe that Black folks were never called (the n-word) or colored, or unless they believe that segregation never happened, then maybe they are on the right track in believing that they are right,” he said in an interview.

Theda Skocpol, a Harvard sociologist and political scientist who has studied American conservatism, questions how many Floridians are actually concerned that critical race theory is being taught in schools. She wonders if that issue, and the move to politicize school board elections, “may be more of a placeholder” for parents’ anxiety about the impact the pandemic has had on children and their educational progress — issues that emerged in the gubernatorial election of Republican Glenn Youngkin in Virginia.

“Right now, it’s pretty clear, especially in the wake of Virginia, Republicans see school board politics as something that they can use to recruit local activists and to win back suburban women,” many of whom had switched to Biden in 2020, she said in an interview.

Skocpol said that the pandemic also has left more people isolated and dependent on television and social media and therefore vulnerable to “the possibilities of creating emotional, angry controversies over nothing.”

“Florida has a disproportionately older electorate, so any appeal that these kinds of cultural war issues have is exaggerated because you’re dealing with a population that spends a lot of time watching Fox and other right-wing media,” she said.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor, far left, and  Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, far right, listen as Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers his address during the joint session of the Florida Legislature at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor, far left, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, far right, listen as Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers his address during the joint session of the Florida Legislature at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Few surprises and few details

Many Republicans say the governor’s priorities are nothing new and see it as DeSantis “doubling down” on measures that he has promoted since he first came into office in 2019.

“You know where he stands all the time,” said Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican. “I’ve never been blindsided or thrown a curveball by this governor, ever.”

But Hutson says the governor also understands that there is a legislative process and is “flexible” with leaving state lawmakers to deal with the details.

“So, while he may have big, bold ideas, he knows that we have to massage those ideas into something that’s plausible that we can all live with,” he said.

It is unclear whether legislators will water down the governor’s proposals, as they have done with other initiatives, such as his plan to ban vaccine mandates and require employers to use E-Verify, the federal electronic system, to check the immigration status of workers.

As a gubernatorial candidate in 2018, DeSantis vowed to require all employers to use the system. But in 2020, legislators passed a measure that fell short of that promise by requiring only public employers and private contractors to use the system, which is run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

This year, DeSantis wants to strengthen E-Verify enforcement, but he has yet to unveil the details. He also has yet to elaborate on his plans to allow parents and employers to sue over what he calls “wokeness” policies.

The delay bothers Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Howey-in-the-Hills Republican who has been a vocal critic of the “fake E-Verify” measure passed by the Legislature in 2020.

“The longer that we wait to get these bills, the worse off we are because it allows the legislative leadership to conduct more shenanigans and do Orwellian speech where they say the bill does one thing, but it doesn’t,” Sabatini said.

While Sabatini agrees with DeSantis on policy, he says he is not a fan of the governor’s approach, which lately features campaign-style news conferences and bullet points but no specifics. Without details, Sabatini said, it is difficult to mobilize the public to pressure lawmakers into making changes.

Even so, social scientists and policy advocates say the emotionally charged debates succeed in creating energy around an issue, along with more division and partisanship.

“What we’re losing is the possibility of a conversation that lays the basis for a reasonable agreement across party lines,” Galston said.

“It’s just so sad to see these culture wars play out in politics because it actually doesn’t do anything to help keep Floridians healthier, more prosperous or safe,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat.

Legislative leaders have not advanced bills on other contentious issues. Although the governor indicated he would sign a bill to allow people to carry a firearm without a license, a measure Sabatini has filed, the bill has yet to have a hearing. A House bill, patterned after the Texas law that would ban abortions as early as about six weeks, has been filed by Rep. Webster Barnaby, a Deltona Republican, but has not received a hearing.

No affordable housing plan

For Brandes, the decision by the governor and legislative leaders to focus on cultural conflicts delays the inevitable need to craft substantial policy that addresses other important issues.

“The simple truth is in this state there isn’t a plan to deal with affordable housing,” he said.

Because some people can’t afford a down payment, and can’t pay their first and last month’s rent, they resort to living in motels or hotels, he said. Brandes has filed legislation that would give local governments more control over what he calls the state’s one-size-fits-all approach to affordable housing by shifting the money from down-payment assistance to rental assistance.

Related: Outgoing Sen. Jeff Brandes still chasing a legacy in prison reform

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, and Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, last month asked DeSantis to declare an affordable housing emergency in Florida to end what they consider price gouging by landlords that have raised rents by up to 30 percent in parts of the state.

DeSantis blamed the rise in housing costs on the national economy and responded that the Democrats should direct their criticism at President Joe Biden.

Brandes also notes that there isn’t a plan to deal with soaring property insurance rates, auto insurance reform, and the burgeoning labor shortages in nursing, transportation infrastructure, and the prison system.

“We have to have a strategy for dealing with this, and I have yet to see it,” he said.

Florida House of Representatives Sergeant at Arms Russell Hosford, left, and Florida Senate Sergeant at Arms Damien Kelly drop handkerchiefs in a symbolic end of a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Florida House of Representatives Sergeant at Arms Russell Hosford, left, and Florida Senate Sergeant at Arms Damien Kelly drop handkerchiefs in a symbolic end of a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]

Next crisis: Property insurance

Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, chairperson of the Senate’s Banking and Insurance Committee, acknowledged that the property insurance market in Florida is in “crisis.”

Some insurers have requested permission to raise premiums on homeowners by more than 30 percent. Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run insurer for homeowners who can’t find policies on the private market, is looking to raise rates by 11 percent, the maximum allowed under state law. Multiple property insurers have fallen into receivership in the last two years.

But Boyd, whose own homeowner’s insurance policy has gone up 40 percent, said he does not expect a robust bill to address rising rates this session, choosing instead to wait and see how reforms passed during the 2021 session play out.

That legislation, signed by DeSantis, included limiting the fees attorneys collect when homeowners sue their insurers and reducing the amount of time homeowners have to file a claim from three years to two. The changes allowed Citizens to raise its rates beyond 10 percent.

One portion of the legislation, which limited advertisements by roofing contractors, was placed on hold by a federal judge following a lawsuit last year. Boyd said he will try to address contractor advertising and the cost of roof replacements, issues that insurers have said are contributing to rising rates.

Related: Judge blocks key portion of Florida property insurance law

“I think we have to try to do something to give (homeowners) some relief,” he said.

DeSantis’ priorities also contrast him with Biden as the governor continues to generate buzz about a potential 2024 White House run.

“DeSantis is a master at giving a counterpoint and an alternative to what’s happening at the national level,” Sabatini said. “He is highlighting the trends, but no matter what he does, the trends themselves are going to make people push really hard for a different direction.”

But is an agenda focused on social issues what constituents are telling legislators they want?

“When I talk to my constituents, they are worried about jobs. They’re worried about the economy. They’re worried about their kids and their education deficits from switching from in-person to out-of-school education,” said Sen. Jennifer Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who chairs the Senate Community Affairs Committee.

In November, Bradley’s committee held a workshop on the status of affordable housing in Florida and was told that most workers in Florida can’t afford to rent a typical two-bedroom apartment.

Bradley said the workshop made clear that “state investment is an important part of the solution but by no means the only part” and, she added, her committee “will also consider initiatives to address financing and local government flexibility to support and implement policy.”

Polsky — a Boca Raton Democrat who represents Parkland, Coral Springs and Coconut Creek — said her constituents want legislators to put a priority on gun safety, especially at a time when students continue to bring guns into schools.

For four years, Polsky has proposed a bill that requires safe storage of guns, but it has not received a hearing.

“The fact that we won’t address something that is this day-to-day scary for parents and schools, but we are going to spend days on these culture wars is beyond me,” she said. “One is real and one is fake.”

Polsky recalled her conversation with a leader from the Service Employees International Union, which represents bus drivers, adjunct professors, nurses, certified nursing assistants in nursing homes, janitors, and home health care aides, who told her their members “are desperate for affordable housing and desperate for higher wages.”

“Real-life people who can’t make ends meet have to go to work sick because they can’t afford to not work because of rent,” she said.

Jackson finds a residence

Jackson, the Sarasota medical assistant whose lease was canceled, is confused by what she considers the state’s inadequate response to the housing crisis.

“They have been acknowledging this (affordable housing) was a problem for the last few years, so that’s what I don’t understand,” she said. “This is not like it happened overnight. It’s gotten gradually worse.”

After weeks of searching, Jackson in December was left with two options: rent a single room from an 88-year-old woman outside of the city, or move in with a single man whom she didn’t know. She decided to move in with the older woman who will charge her $750 a month, and Jackson will make a lengthy commute.

“It’s scary. This is new for me, but I have no choice,” she said. “I’m lucky it’s just me and my cat. But I’m hearing stories — such as families being displaced with children, families that have elderly parents who live with them and they have nowhere to go. And it breaks my heart.”

She worries that if something drastic isn’t done, Florida’s affordable housing crisis will become a homelessness crisis that will have ripple effects on businesses like her employer, West Coast Podiatry Center, which has been short-staffed since the pandemic.

“We literally searched high and low for employees — offering more money, offering more benefits,’’ she said. “The thing is, there’s plenty of jobs but there’s nowhere for the people to live to fill those positions.”

When she hears the list of cultural issues that are a priority of the Legislature, Jackson pauses.

“All those topics I agree are very important,” she said. “It seems like we just talk about the same thing over and over, but in reality is anything ever being done?”

Tampa Bay Times reporters Lawrence Mower and Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.