Florida lawmakers drained, bases enraged as session nears end

The two-month session was dominated by a flurry of bills that provoked emotional debate.
Florida senators on the floor and visitors in the gallery bow their heads for a morning prayer before the start of a legislative session at the Florida State Capitol, Wednesday, March 9, 2022, in Tallahassee.
Florida senators on the floor and visitors in the gallery bow their heads for a morning prayer before the start of a legislative session at the Florida State Capitol, Wednesday, March 9, 2022, in Tallahassee. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published March 12, 2022|Updated March 15, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s Republican leaders made certain this year’s legislative session would be emotional.

With potential presidential candidate Gov. Ron DeSantis helping set the agenda, they championed bills that stoked passions and resonated with their base on wedge issues that included sexual orientation, abortion, immigration, voting and the teaching of the nation’s racial history.

Lawmakers are set to conclude the session Monday. Throughout the last two months, Democrats and Republicans shared wrenching personal stories during heated debates that devolved into partisan and cultural clashes.

When arguing to amend a 15-week abortion ban to exempt cases of rape and incest, one Democratic senator publicly disclosed, for the first time, details about her childhood sexual assault. Black lawmakers told of how they’d been profiled by police to explain why a bill regulating conversations about race in schools and workplaces was harmful.

Gay legislators spoke of their own experiences as they discussed how one education bill could make life harder for LGBTQ children.

It made no difference.

GOP lawmakers embraced DeSantis’ brand of combative conservatism this year, downplaying the concerns of their Democratic colleagues and welcoming a national backlash that included a hesitant rebuke from one of their megadonors, Disney.

Related: Disney pauses Florida political donations amid ‘don’t say gay’ bill clash with DeSantis

With most of the attention focused on the “culture wars,” lawmakers will leave Tallahassee taking no meaningful action on rising property and automobile insurance rates, affordable housing, relief from sky-high rents, post-Surfside condominium reform or a forthcoming Medicaid cliff that could see hundreds of thousands of Floridians lose their health insurance.

“Maybe (charged emotions) was their intent, because clearly it was their impact,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who voted against several of the bills.

“You know that old Wendy’s commercial, ‘Where’s the Beef?’ I think we have big buns and not a lot of meat this year, and got distracted by nationally red meat political issues that serve a great political purpose, but are light on policy.”

Emotions boiled over at times during the session, with Democrats visibly worn down by some of the rhetoric. At a February committee hearing, Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, a corporate attorney who rarely shows emotion during debates, broke down crying while arguing against a proposal to restrict school lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity.

That “parental rights in education” measure, which Democrats branded the “don’t say gay” bill, drew supporters from across Florida to testify in support of the legislation.

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One speaker from the public likened homosexuality to sins like stealing, lying and murder. Another said sexual orientation is a preference.

“I’ve sat through debates on a lot of politically charged and emotionally charged bills. But this is by far the worst I’ve ever seen,” Driskell said in an interview after the testimony. “Honestly, it’s 2022, and the language that was used in this committee room today was like it was 1950, and that’s not OK.”

On Wednesday morning on the House floor, Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, stood up to speak on a bill forbidding anyone but farmers from serving on local soil and water conservation districts.

Homesick and frustrated by yet another highly divisive bill, she wiped tears from her eyes.

“I’m a little emotional today,” she said. “It’s not because of soil and water.”

“It seems like a lot of stuff we do up here, we’re telling the people, Floridians, that they don’t matter, and they shouldn’t be involved in this process,” she said.

“And that’s not right.”

Widespread support on some issues

Legislators found bipartisan agreement on many issues.

Every legislative seat is up for reelection in newly drawn seats because of redistricting this fall, and a record $112.1 billion budget was loaded with projects that gave nearly every lawmaker something to take home.

The budget includes pay raises for all state employees and increases in pay for public school employees, workers at state-contracted nursing homes and Medicaid contractors to at least $15 per hour — $5 more than the state’s minimum wage.

The budget provides historic funding to schools and $200 million toward mental health programs. Lawmakers passed legislative redistricting maps with bipartisan support. For the first time in nearly a decade, all arts groups that applied, 556, are fully funded with $46 million, according to Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando.

Legislators also passed a slate of tax cuts that included a sales tax exemption for diapers, which received widespread bipartisan praise.

“I should probably just shut up and say, ‘Thank you,’” Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said while debating the budget on Friday.

But the state has looming crises that went virtually unaddressed this session.

As soon as July, hundreds of thousands of Floridians who signed up for Medicaid during the pandemic could lose coverage when the federal COVID-19 public health emergency ends. That could swamp state agencies charged with maintaining the Medicaid program with extra work and confused enrollees.

Although lawmakers repeatedly said that constituents were concerned about rapidly rising property insurance rates, a bill that might have addressed it stalled in the final days of session.

Focusing on what did not get done does not do the Legislature justice considering how well the state has recovered from the pandemic, said Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who made pay raises a priority.

“To accomplish the things that we’ve done for Florida families — blue collar, $15 an hour — and you think about parental choice in schools, breaking generational poverty, sea level rise and all the things that we have done in the last two years, that is what actually makes Florida look different from the rest of the other states in our country,” Simpson said Friday.

Legislation enraged both bases

This year’s legislation lit a firestorm in both parties’ bases.

Protesters were regulars in the Capitol. National media and cultural figures blasted the abortion bill and what they considered draconian anti-LGBTQ legislation. Disney announced Friday it was suspending political contributions after pushback from employees.

Related: Disney pauses Florida political donations amid 'don't say gay' bill clash with DeSantis

Students from across the state recruited peers on social media to protest the “don’t say gay” bill. Ahead of the bill’s final passage in the Senate, 18-year-old Alex Stanwood, a senior at SAIL High School in Tallahassee, mobilized students with a TikTok video that drew nearly 800,000 views. In that video, Stanwood declared that “Gen Z is fed up.”

Stanwood raised a couple hundred dollars to pay for water and supplies to make sure lawmakers saw their messages on posters. Some read, “Be Gay. Say Gay.” Others said, “My existence will not be taboo.”

DeSantis and Republican lawmakers blamed the media and Democrats for distorting the content of that legislation. (His spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, said anyone against the bill was “probably a groomer,” a term for sexual predators.)

“I think there’s an intentional effort to lie to voters about what are in these bills,” said Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, speaking in support of the measure.

Republicans found themselves pressured from their own supporters, as well. Conservatives who believe widespread voter fraud exists urged lawmakers to make voting legislation more restrictive.

The bill sponsor, Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, fielded angry emails, including one labeling him “Travesty” Hutson for not doing more to sharply limit how Floridians can vote.

Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who chairs the Republican Party of Florida, also got pushback from conservatives for not imposing shorter term limits on school board members, a popular issue among Republicans. Gruters pushed for 12-year term limits instead of eight years.

“I am getting huge pushback from the right. They are calling me a RINO (Republican In Name Only) and all this other stuff,” Gruters said. “But at the end of the day, when I look at 12 years, I look at it as progress.”

DeSantis, already a solid front-runner for reelection this year, now finds himself emboldened with new tools to enforce his agenda.

The Department of Transportation under his control soon will have $12 million to launch a never-before-tried immigration program that will allow the state to contract with private companies and individuals to remove undocumented immigrants from Florida.

DeSantis is poised to become commander in chief of a Florida State Guard, reestablished by lawmakers this session, which could have a volunteer force of up to 400. He could activate the guard if he decides to issue an emergency order or declare a state of emergency to “preserve the public peace,” and more broadly, to “execute the laws of the state.”

DeSantis said he’s received a “huge” response from supporters wanting to join.

A set agenda

Amid outrage over the legislation, Republican lawmakers resisted calls to modify.

Disney tried to soften the language of the so-called “don’t say gay” bill behind the scenes. Neither that nor appeals by hundreds of public speakers succeeded.

“I knew we couldn’t change everyone’s mind. It was clear that they did not want to find any common ground,” said Kaylee Sandell, a 15-year-old Leon County High School student. “But I thought maybe we can have a few people listen and change their minds.”

After all the effort and all the noise that students made, Sandell said she felt dismissed by lawmakers. But she said she isn’t discouraged.

“It gave me hope not that the legislation passed, but for the future,” she said. “So many people came out.”

Although a few Republican legislators voted against the so-called “don’t say gay” bill and others, the party made virtually no concessions on that legislation or others.

During a debate on a bill about teaching race in schools, Democrats tried to point out their lack of involvement in the process.

“You wouldn’t file a bill about anti-Semitism without talking to a Jewish legislator,” said Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami. “Why didn’t you talk to any of our Black members here in the Senate when you filed this bill?”

“I believe that would have been a good idea,” Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, replied.

“But I don’t think it would have changed what we’re doing.”

Times/Herald reporter Kirby Wilson contributed to this story.

Correction: Alex Stanwood is a student at SAIL High School in Tallahassee and uses the pronouns he/him. An earlier version of this story provided incorrect information.

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