TALLAHASSEE — At the urging of Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida lawmakers will return to Tallahassee this week to address a grab bag of policy issues that address state needs and, at times, seamlessly align with the political goals of the governor’s sputtering presidential campaign.
Against the backdrop of the war between Israel and Hamas, proposals taking center stage during the four-day special lawmaking session will focus on beefing up state sanctions on Florida companies that do business with Iran, a longtime benefactor of Hamas, and increasing funding for security at Jewish schools throughout Florida.
“Following the horrific atrocities committed by Iranian-backed terrorist group Hamas against Israel, I am calling on the Florida Legislature to act swiftly to ensure our state does not send a penny to the Iranian terror state,” DeSantis said in a statement when lawmakers announced the special session last month. “I am glad to see the Legislature’s willingness to convene and address this along with other important issues of the state.”
DeSantis’ decision to only mention elements of the special season dealing with Israel sends a clear signal about his top priorities, even as state lawmakers will also be dealing with issues related to school vouchers, Hurricane Idalia recovery and helping homeowners retrofit their homes to harden them from wind damage, an issue that touches on a collapsing Florida property insurance market that has been a political thorn in the side of DeSantis’ campaign.
This week’s special session will be the seventh under DeSantis, who has faced criticism for calling lawmakers back to Tallahassee to fulfill his political agenda on issues like immigration and his crackdown on Walt Disney World following the company’s opposition to a contentious education law, the Parental Rights in Education bill, that opponents labeled Don’t Say Gay.
This week, with lawmakers expected to wrap up their business in Tallahassee on Thursday, DeSantis will have a fresh batch of issues to talk about onstage in Miami when he debates his GOP presidential rivals for the third time. Historically, the governor has amplified his record at the state level as an example of what people could expect of his leadership if elected president.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, the leader of the House Democrats, said that she didn’t necessarily disagree with the legislation lawmakers are taking up this week.
But she noted it could have been taken up last month, while lawmakers were meeting in committees in advance of the annual legislative session in January.
“He is trying to leverage his position as a governor to get more headlines for his presidential campaign,” Driskell said. “Why the urgency now? The urgency is the governor’s performance on the debate stage.”
Florida responds to the Israel-Hamas war
With a rise in antisemitism since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, lawmakers this week plan to set more than $30 million aside to bolster security at Jewish day schools and preschools as well as synagogues, museums and cultural centers.
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The House and Senate have put forward identical proposals that would steer $25 million to schools and establish $10 million in grants for nonprofit organizations that are “at high risk for violent attacks or hate crimes.”
State Rep. Randy Fine, the only member of the Legislature who is both Jewish and Republican, is sponsoring the House proposal, which he says is one way in which lawmakers are “stepping up to protect Florida’s Jews.” Fine recently withdrew his support for DeSantis’ 2024 presidential bid because he said the governor had not done enough to combat antisemitism.
In addition to more security funds, lawmakers are also considering a proposal that aims to discourage businesses in the state from dealing with Iran by enacting a broad blacklist of companies that have ties to the country.
It remains unclear how many Florida businesses would be impacted by the proposed measure. But Republican state Rep. John Snyder, the sponsor of the House bill, said the idea is to stop state funds from going into companies that directly or indirectly do business with Iran with the goal of impacting “every sector of the Iranian economy.”
The broad language of the bill could cause more harm than good to Florida businesses, whose banks and shipping companies could refuse to work with them on the mere risk of being stigmatized by the new blacklist policy, said Patrick Clawson, director of the Viterbi Program on Iran and U.S. Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Lawmakers are also passing a resolution supporting Israel and condemning Hamas. The measure is sponsored by Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach.
“Words matter,” Berman said.
Homeowners program on the agenda
Lawmakers are set to assign another $181 million to the My Safe Florida Home program, which provides free home inspections and grants up to $10,000 to help harden Floridians’ windows, doors and roofs.
The program, intended to reduce Floridians’ homeowners insurance premiums, has been popular.
As of September, 10 months after the program launched, 38,751 homeowners had applied for grant funding, with 19,052 approved, according to the Department of Financial Services, which administers the program. Nearly 20,000 applications were still being processed, with money quickly running out.
Lawmakers have already spent $215 million on the program. If they assign the money this week, it would go toward applicants who applied before Oct. 15.
The special session marks the third time in a year that DeSantis has called lawmakers back to address issues that touch on the state’s homeowners insurance crisis. Last year, lawmakers passed laws designed to curb lawsuits against insurance companies.
Insurers have blamed lawsuits for driving up rates, which are now the highest in the country, but state lawmakers have never proved that lawsuits were the cause of the crisis, and premiums continue to rise.
Following complaints, lawmakers address voucher issues
Lawmakers will also consider lifting this year’s cap on the number of students with special needs who can receive school vouchers to help them pay for private school tuition and a wide variety of school-related expenses.
For the 2023-2024 school year, state law limits the number of scholarships for students with disabilities to 40,913 under the Family Empowerment Scholarship program. Students without special needs do not have a similar cap on enrollment under the program, though they receive fewer dollars.
Lawmakers plan to revisit the issue this week after parents of children with disabilities complained that they had not received the scholarships or faced funding delays.
But after parents complained that their children had been placed on a waiting list after being told they were eligible to receive vouchers, lawmakers have filed legislation to address the discrepancy.
Lawmakers have not said how much it will cost to lift the cap of the scholarship program — or how many additional vouchers will be accommodated. The proposed measures only say that the number of students participating in the program would be the number “determined eligible” by the Florida Department of Education and the nonprofit groups that help the state administer the vouchers.
The staff analyses of the proposals note that the change would have an “indeterminate fiscal impact,” and that the costs would be covered by money already in the current year’s state budget.
Specifically, staff point to a $350 million pot of money that was set aside by lawmakers in the spring for an “educational stabilization fund,” which was created to keep school districts’ funding stable in case they lost too many students to the state’s voucher programs.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.