With the regular annual session of the Florida Legislature set to start in just a month, why in the world – you might be asking yourself – did Florida Republicans decide it was necessary to go to the trouble of a special session last week?
It’s not like any of the five bills that the Legislature passed on Friday and sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature had a deadline before March 7, the start of the regular session.
The closest thing lawmakers had to a pressing matter was the pending dissolution of Walt Disney World’s special taxing district, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, in June, as required by a law that DeSantis pushed and Republicans passed last year. The problem was that a simple dissolution of the district under the parameters of the 2022 law would leave taxpayers in Orange and Osceola counties on the hook for more than $700 million of Disney’s bond debt.
So it’s understandable that Republican lawmakers and DeSantis – who wanted to punish Disney for opposing his “Don’t Say Gay” education legislation – felt they had to “fix” the 2022 law if they didn’t want to be remembered for screwing Central Florida taxpayers as well as being inept at passing legislation. They also were facing a lawsuit filed by Orange and Osceola county residents.
Even so, with the 60-day regular session scheduled to end in early May, lawmakers could have taken care of the Reedy Creek issue in the regular session, although they admittedly would have been cutting it close.
SLATE OF ISSUES
Or, if they thought they really needed to address that one issue early, why not make it a one-issue special session. Typically, a special legislative session focuses on just one —maybe a few—subjects. But this time, lawmakers tackled a full slate of issues, including:
Fixing the law passed last year creating DeSantis’ elections crime unit. Three courts rejected charges brought by the unit and statewide prosecutor because they ruled the statewide prosecutor didn’t have jurisdiction. The statewide prosecutor only has jurisdiction in cases where a crime is committed across more than one judicial circuit, but the people being charged with fraudulent voting had voted only in one location.
Fixing the law that DeSantis famously and, it appears, illegally used when he flew a group of undocumented immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Florida’s 2022 law created a $12 million program, using federal COVID-recovery funds, to relocate migrants from within Florida, and DeSantis is facing several lawsuits accusing him violating the 2022 law and violating the immigrants’ civil rights.
Fixing Florida’s 2020 Name, Image and Likeness law for collegiate athletes. The 2020 law barred state universities from helping athletes secure endorsement deals, but that has put Florida schools at a disadvantage in recruiting athletes when competing with schools in states that allow their universities to help students get deals.
Fixing last year’s emergency relief bills to allocate more funding to help local governments recover from Hurricanes Ian and Nicole.
Are you seeing a pattern here? Is it any wonder some called last week’s special session the “fix-it session?”
“This has been a clean-up session for the governor’s mistakes,” House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said.
So it’s understandable that Republican lawmakers and DeSantis – who wanted to punish Disney for opposing his “Don’t Say Gay” education legislation – felt they had to “fix” the 2022 law if they didn’t want to be remembered for putting the screw to Central Florida taxpayers as well as being inept at passing legislation. They also were facing a lawsuit filed by Orange and Osceola county residents. residents.residents.esidents.sidents.idents.dents.ents.nts.ts.s..ey for defying him last year on the Don’t Say Gay lputting the screw tonts.
WHAT LEGISLATURE DID
Republican lawmakers’ cleanup work for DeSantis this session included changes to the:
Disney improvement district: Instead of dissolving the district, House Bill 9B moves the power to appoint the district’s five board members from Disney to the governor. Thus, Disney retains the obligation to pay off its bond debt, and DeSantis, who has shown a propensity for payback, gets to pick the people who will decide building regulations and staff hires for the district that takes care of roads, water, fire protection and other infrastructure needs for Disney’s 25,000 acres. The bill also changes the district’s name to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District after a two-year waiting period.
Election crimes investigations unit: Senate Bill 4B gives the statewide prosecutor the power to investigate and prosecute any crime involving an election in which a federal or state office or referendum is on the ballot and affects more than two judicial circuits. So it’s not a matter of whether an accused offender votes in two different circuits but whether the election that person votes in affects more than one circuit. This requirement would include any statewide race, many congressional races and some state legislative races. It is expected to clear the way for the statewide prosecutor to pursue other election fraud cases, which Democrat and African-American leaders say is largely for the purpose of voter intimidation.
Forced migrant flights: SB 6B creates the Florida Unauthorized Alien Transport Program and sets aside $10 million for the governor to hire contractors to travel the nation to find undocumented immigrants and ship them from anywhere in the country to what Republicans deem sanctuary cities. DeSantis’ lawyers have told a judge in one of the lawsuits against the 2022 law that they would try to dismiss the lawsuit once SB 6B became law. But Southern Poverty Law Center attorneys say the legislative change won’t shield DeSantis in court. They say Florida’s migrant relocation program is unconstitutional, because the U.S. Constitution grants the exclusive power to regulate immigration policy to the federal government.
Florida’s NIL law: HB 7B removes language that prevented schools from causing cash to be directed to athletes. The new law also adds entrepreneurship education to what financial literacy services schools can provide their athletes, and it adds liability protections for coaches against claims athletes make about damages to image worth.
Hurricane relief: SB 2B appropriates $50 million to provide bridge loans for local governments damaged by Hurricanes Ian or Nicole until those communities can secure funding from other sources. It also transfers $650 million to the governor’s office for preparing for and responding to declared states of emergency.
With this special session Republican lawmakers demonstrated that they perhaps have an aptitude for passing legislation, but it’s still debatable whether they know how to pass good legislation, i.e. legislation that is good for Florida residents.
Special sessions, of course, usually cost the state unbudgeted money for the extra travel, room and board lawmakers require to get to and stay in Tallahassee during the special session. But Republicans say that wasn’t a problem this session because lawmakers were already there for a week of scheduled committee meetings in advance of the regular session.
SPECIAL SESSION ITSELF A TOOL
Republicans of the DeSantis era also don’t seem to be as reluctant to schedule special sessions as previous lawmakers have. This special session was the sixth since the start of 2021, compared to none from 2015 to 2020.
Some speculate that special sessions have become more common in Florida because DeSantis sees them as a tool to highlight his high-priority legislation to gain more sustained media coverage, particularly from friendly conservative outlets, than what he might get during a 6-day regular session where multiple controversial issues might be considered at once. For instance, the issues covered in this special session would have had to compete in the news with a major expansion of school vouchers, a measure to eliminate concealed weapons permitting and possibly new abortion restrictions if they were held until the regular session that starts in March.
Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book of Plantation said Democrats are frustrated by subservience of the Legislature to DeSantis, but the Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers.
“We’re in a place where they can do whatever they want, so they do,” she said.