Takeaways from Florida’s fix-it special legislative session

Lawmakers passed bills related to Disney, voter fraud, migrants and more.
Rep. Anna V. Eskamani, D-Orlando, questions Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud about his House Bill 9B, which would change Disney's Reedy Creek Improvement District, on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
Rep. Anna V. Eskamani, D-Orlando, questions Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud about his House Bill 9B, which would change Disney's Reedy Creek Improvement District, on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
Published Feb. 10|Updated Feb. 12

TALLAHASSEE — Migrant flights. Voter fraud. Disney.

Lawmakers’ special legislative session this week appeared to be a “greatest hits” of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ top controversies over the last year.

Instead of treading new ground, legislators focused on amending or expanding the governor’s priorities and fixing flaws in previous legislation.

The fix-it session

Lawmakers were called back to Tallahassee for the sixth special legislative session in 20 months to try to remedy last year’s mistakes or omissions.

Among them was figuring out what to do with Disney’s special taxing district.

Lawmakers last year moved to dissolve the district following DeSantis’ clash with the company after it opposed Florida’s Parental Rights in Education legislation, called the don’t say gay bill by critics. But lawmakers overlooked an obscure statute that said the district’s $1 billion in debts had to be paid first.

So instead of dissolving the district, lawmakers this week simply renamed Disney’s special taxing district and let DeSantis, instead of Disney, choose its five board members.

They also passed a law clarifying DeSantis could fly migrants from any state, after DeSantis appeared to violate state law by flying migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard last year.

And they made changes to keep cases against the 20 people DeSantis accused of voter fraud last year from being in jeopardy because he chose statewide prosecutors to bring the charges instead of going to local state attorneys.

Lawmakers also repealed a 2020 law that allowed college athletes to make money off their name, image and likeness, in order to fix a perceived disadvantage for Florida schools and their athletes.

Legislative leaders said they had good reason to return to Tallahassee to deal with these bills instead of waiting a month to convene for the regular 60-day session.

“We don’t wait around to fix problems, and each of these bills, in my mind, has some time sensitivity around it, which is why we’re here,” said House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast.

Democrats disagreed.

“This has been a clean-up session for the governor’s mistakes,” said House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa.

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Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, said it’s part of a bigger trend. Bills in recent years have been negotiated behind the scenes with the governor’s office and handed down to lawmakers, who have no input on the final product.

“It is sloppy,” she said. “That’s how you make mistakes.”

Questions about programs went unanswered

Despite bills being heard and debated throughout the week, Republican lawmakers struggled to answer questions about the legislation.

House Republican leaders also limited the types of questions lawmakers could ask, a rule that is seldom enforced, and limited the time Democrats had to ask questions.

Republicans couldn’t say how amending the law governing the statewide prosecutor would affect the voter fraud cases prosecutors were currently handling.

They couldn’t say how much had been spent already to relocate migrants, even though legislators control state spending. Or how DeSantis’ administration planned to spend the $10 million lawmakers were allocating to the program. Or why they were allowing DeSantis to pursue no-bid contracts to spend that money.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, said the problem was that House and Senate leaders worked on the bills and handed them to a few lawmakers to “run” them.

“I’m asking very, very simple fifth-grade questions on certain numbers and data, and you can’t answer, because it’s not yours,” Pizzo said after the session ended.

The courts remain the primary check on DeSantis

With Republican lawmakers holding a supermajority in both chambers, there is little Democrats can do to check the governor.

The courts have been the one place that has forced him to rewrite flawed legislation.

Individual residents of Orange and Osceola counties sued the state last year over its plan to dissolve Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District because taxpayers in their counties would have been left to pay over $100 million in annual expenses and over $1 billion in outstanding debt.

Three courts have rejected charges by the state Office of Election Crimes and Security because statewide prosecutors did not have jurisdiction.

And several lawsuits are pending against the DeSantis administration over the use of migrant flights. Pizzo sued as an individual citizen, claiming the use of the money violated state law.

DeSantis’ lawyers this week told a judge in Pizzo’s case that they will try to dismiss the lawsuit once the bill becomes law, Politico reported.

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