In less than six months, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature have significantly tightened the Republican stranglehold on this state. They pushed public policy further to the right, and they made it harder for voters to change course. Democrats may still outnumber Republicans in voter registration, but Florida’s face has turned beet red.
Give the Republicans in Tallahassee credit. The new governor and legislative leaders reached new heights by working together, silencing virtually any dissent within the Republican ranks and generally ignoring the feeble, disorganized Democrats. It’s obvious that legislating is a team sport and bipartisanship is a quaint notion. Unless, of course, the issue is as generic as home vegetable gardens, texting while driving or importing drugs from Canada.
There are no reliable checks left on Republicans running roughshod over the Florida Constitution, the public schools, the environment, local government or the will of the voters.
The courts? DeSantis appointed three new conservative justices to the seven-member Florida Supreme Court shortly after taking office. Then he signed into law a plan to spend millions in public dollars on private school tuition event though the court found a similar voucher program unconstitutional in 2006. It’s a brazen bet by the governor and Republican lawmakers that what is clearly unconstitutional now no longer will be under a more conservative court.
The governor? Former governors rejected a toll road to nowhere that would cut through undeveloped land between Polk County and Collier County. But Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, made three unneeded toll roads his top priority, and DeSantis signed the legislation to pursue those projects. When legislation that bans sanctuary cities and requires local law enforcement to hold undocumented immigrants for federal authorities appeared stalled in the Senate, the governor got it moving and then signed it into law.
The Senate? It once was less partisan, more moderate and more willing to reject extreme legislation from the House. Not anymore. The Senate embraced House Speaker Jose Oliva’s top priority to deregulate hospital construction at the expense of nonprofit hospitals like Tampa General that provide most of the care for the uninsured and for Medicaid patients. The Senate also went along with arming classroom teachers and banning sanctuary cities.
The Democrats? They picked up a Senate seat and five House seats in November, but they were even less effective than usual and largely irrelevant. Their only statewide voices are the state agriculture commissioner who supports recreational marijuana and their most recent unsuccessful candidate for governor who apparently remains under federal investigation. The Democrats’ only glimmers of hope: Big-city mayors such as Jane Castor in Tampa and Rick Kriseman in St. Petersburg.
The governor and Republican lawmakers moved to insulate themselves from outside forces as well. They ignored the intent of voters who passed Amendment 4, which was aimed at automatically restoring voting rights to more than 1 million felons who have completed their sentences. The governor is expected to sign into law legislation that will require those felons to first pay all fines and fees as well as restitution, which is expected to keep hundreds of thousands of felons from voting.
To make it more difficult for voters to go around the Legislature, the governor has signed into law restrictions on citizen initiatives. The clear intent is to make it more difficult for voters to get constitutional amendments on the ballot to address issues that Republicans in Tallahassee won’t.
What can voters do who oppose Florida’s far right turn and who support issues Republicans in Tallahassee won’t touch?
First, look around your communities now and recruit more moderate candidates for the Legislature in 2020 — regardless of whether they are Republicans or Democrats.
Second, sign petitions being circulated for constitutional amendments such banning assault weapons, raising the minimum wage, accepting federal Medicaid expansion money and opening primary elections.
Third, become an informed voter in 2020. Read up on the voting records of incumbents. Attend candidate forums. Ask questions about the issues you care most about. And vote your conscience, not the party line.