Florida Legislature’s wrong priorities for 2023 | Editorial
The annual session beginning Tuesday promises red meat for conservatives
The Florida Legislature begins its annual session Tuesday. Seen here is the Capitol rotunda on Feb. 8 in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)
The Florida Legislature begins its annual session Tuesday. Seen here is the Capitol rotunda on Feb. 8 in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Phil Sears) [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Mar. 10

The legislative session that begins Tuesday promises to yield plenty of red meat for conservatives and a final flurry of political victories for Gov. Ron DeSantis as he prepares an anticipated run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. But the legislative priorities that House and Senate leaders are teeing up — outlawing diversity efforts in higher education, expanding private school vouchers, allowing the carrying of firearms without a permit and creating new tax breaks for homeowners — don’t address the bread-and-butter concerns that most Floridians face with rising housing prices, hikes in property insurance and multibillion-dollar price tags for transportation, flooding, clean water and other infrastructure improvements that are key to maintaining the state’s quality of life.

Not coincidentally, some of the worst legislative proposals are also some of the fastest moving. Here’s a look at a few of them.

Limit college diversity. House Bill 999 would cement DeSantis’ crackdown on diversity efforts in Florida’s higher education system and give the governor greater control over what happens on campus. Colleges and universities could not “promote, support or maintain” any programs “that espouse diversity, equity and inclusion.” Schools would be instructed to remove any major or minor field of study in “critical race theory,” gender studies or any “derivative” of “these belief systems.” The bill requires all faculty hiring to be done by each school’s board of trustees (where the governor holds the majority of appointments), though hiring could be delegated only to the president. Schools also could review the employment of tenured faculty at any time.

The net effect is that DeSantis would entangle the universities further in his culture wars, enabling him to micromanage faculty, academic programs and campus affairs. The bill also assigns colleges a core mission of educating students about “citizenship of the constitutional republic” and calls for institutions to align their mission with “the state’s existing and emerging workforce needs.” The measure is a jumbled effort to retool higher education as a political tool of the state, to chill academic freedom and to force ideologically-driven curriculum on Florida’s college campuses.

Expand school vouchers. Republican legislative leaders want to continue the decadeslong movement toward greater school choice by vastly expanding school vouchers. The trouble is they have little idea of what the latest proposal will cost, which is an irresponsible way of stewarding taxpayer money.

House Bill 1 expands the program to make vouchers available to all Florida children eligible to enter kindergarten through 12th grade. The voucher amount would be equivalent to per-student funding in a public school — currently about $8,216 per year.

Aside from the policy considerations of using tax money for private education, supporters and critics are deeply split over the financial impacts the legislation would have on public school districts. The bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, put the number at $209.6 million. But that estimate is based, in part, on the assumption that only half the near-60,000 private school students who would become newly eligible next year would participate. The independent Florida Policy Institute says the measure could cost up to $4 billion. But that figure represents the total annual cost of existing and new vouchers going forward.

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Creating a broad, new entitlement without disclosing the true cost is irresponsible; Hillsborough County and other big school districts are already warning of major losses in funding. Republicans at least need to talk straight to taxpayers about the damage this could cause to traditional classrooms.

Carry weapons without permit. Despite a series of mass shootings in recent years, lawmakers are fast-tracking a bill to enable more Floridians to carry concealed weapons. House Bill 543 is only steps away from becoming law even before the session begins, with only one additional Senate committee stop before a full floor vote, and no other committees to move through in the House.

The legislation would allow qualified Floridians to carry a concealed weapon without a permit and without training (though it does not go so far as to allow open carry of guns). People would not be required to demonstrate competency with a firearm or affirm that they desire to carry a weapon for lawful self-defense. Putting gun safety on the honor system is a reckless idea in a state with as many mass shootings as Florida. In endorsing the measure, even Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis seemed to stretch for a justification, saying that “we can assume that our citizens are going to do the right thing.” (If that were the case, we’d have no need for sheriffs.) The legislation also includes some improvements for school safety and officer training, but those provisions could be included separately in stand-alone bills rather than bundled to make a gun-proliferation law more attractive.

Property tax cap. Call this the “Free Money Bill,” or more accurately, “Tax the renters, not me.” Senate Joint Resolution 122 would lower the cap on annual increases on a homesteaded property’s taxable value, eating into the tax base, and forcing communities to find new ways to make up the financial loss.

Voters approved the Save Our Homes measure in 1992. It allows taxable values on homesteaded property to increase up to 3% a year or the change in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is lower. The Senate resolution proposes a state constitutional amendment to lower that cap to 2%. If adopted by the Legislature, the amendment would appear on the November 2024 general election ballot, and if approved by at least 60% of the voters, it would take effect on Jan. 1, 2025.

Lawmakers know that property tax cuts are popular, and this measure is likely to sail through the Legislature. But lawmakers still don’t know how much local governments would lose or how they would make up the difference. A staff analysis says the measure “will result in an indeterminate negative fiscal impact on local governments,” but doesn’t include a figure. Supporters cited a rough estimate that the change could cut local government revenues statewide by about $150 million a year. But those losses would accrue every year thereafter. Will cities and counties cut public services? Would a bigger share of the tax burden be shifted onto landlords and renters, who already face a lack of available units in Florida and skyrocketing rents? This proposal creates financial uncertainty, hurts the affordable housing market and unfairly skews Florida’s property tax base. And yet again, the Legislature is plowing ahead without a clear view of the implications.

This 60-day session seems preordained to inflame Florida’s culture wars while sidelining the top priorities of average Floridians. But elections have consequences. That’s about to become obvious in Tallahassee.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.