DeSantis makes a mess, and Florida lawmakers use special session to clean up after him | Opinion

Ted Shaffrey/AP Photo

With Gov. DeSantis’ iron-fisted control of the legislative process in Florida, it’s not elected officials who must conform to the limits of the law; it’s the law that gets modified according to the whims of elected officials.

If you pass a half-baked bill in vengeful haste, someone will clean up your mess. When you get sued for allegedly violating your own migrant-relocation program, no worries, your friends in the Legislature will expand that program and give you ample power — and cash — to make it “right.” When you tout illegal voting arrests of people who the state allowed to vote, and it turns out you might have chosen the wrong prosecutors to bring those charges, you simply change the law.

That’s the story of the special legislative session that began this week in the Florida Capitol. The urgent matter the Republican-controlled Legislature must address is cleaning up the governor’s most controversial policies. Lawmakers couldn’t even wait another month until their regular two-month session that starts in March.

To be fair, there are other valid issues being discussed: providing relief for Hurricane Ian victims and expanding a law that allows college athletes to sign endorsement deals. But this is no ordinary special session. The bulk of it is about giving DeSantis more — and unchecked — power.

Take the law that tried to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District in Central Florida last year. Created in the 1960s, the special taxing district is controlled by Disney and serves as the governing body for the Walt Disney World Resort. Was it time to revisit this unusual arrangement that ceded so much power to a private company (the district can even build its own nuclear power plant)? Maybe, but good governance wasn’t really top of mind. The Legislature, egged on by DeSantis, was retaliating against Disney for opposing the parental-rights law critics nicknamed “Don’t say gay.”

When lawmakers passed a bill to dissolve Reedy Creek last year, they didn’t hash out what to do with Disney’s $1 billion debt that, without the company’s ability to tax itself, would fall on the residents of Orange and Osceola counties.

There’s no mea culpa on the part of Republicans, though they did give themselves until June 1 to make changes to the law. They now want to maintain the district under a different name, take away Disney’s power to control it and give it to our almighty governor, who would nominate the five people who make up the district’s board. We suppose there’s one silver lining: The board would lose the authority to build a nuclear plant.

House Bill 5B and Senate Bill 6B are another gift to the governor from lawmakers. The state is defending a lawsuit filed by a Democratic state senator challenging the taxpayer-funded flights of mostly Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. Those migrants were duped into believing they would find jobs and resources on the island.

The lawsuit centers on a key component of the relocation program lawmakers funded last year at DeSantis’ urging: that it relocate migrants from Florida, not other states.

Republicans want to get rid of that fine print and give DeSantis the unchecked authority to relocate migrants from anywhere in the country as long as they have been released by the federal government pending the resolution of their case. He also would get $10 million and the possibility to access $500 million in emergency funds because he signed an executive order declaring an immigration emergency in January, the Herald reported.

This gives DeSantis the ability to tap into millions of dollars to target any voter-rich Republican primary state in his expected presidential run, courtesy of taxpayers. The premise of the program is that the border crisis presents a threat to Floridians, but whether or not those migrants would ever make it to the Sunshine State is inconsequential at this point.

The other legislative clean-up relates to the state’s new election-crimes office, created by the Legislature after Donald Trump’s lies about widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election became a major plank in the Republican Party platform. Last year, DeSantis proudly boasted the office had arrested 20 felons who voted illegally.

Those voters told the Herald and other news outlets they were given voter registration cards by their local election offices. DeSantis’ own administration didn’t flag them as ineligible. Some cases were dismissed by judges who found that the statewide prosecutors who filed the charges didn’t have the jurisdiction to do so.

The Legislature’s first order should be to prevent more ineligible voters from slipping through the cracks. Instead, its solution is to make it easier to prosecute them after they have already cast ballots. Legislation would clarify that the Office of Statewide Prosecution can investigate voting-related crimes. The office reports to a Republican, Attorney General Ashley Moody, and is a safer way for DeSantis to score wins than going through Florida’s 20 states attorney, prosecutors who are elected locally.

One-party control of Florida’s government is nothing new. What’s new is that the Legislature has become just another arm of the governor’s office. Its role isn’t to serve as a check on the executive power anymore, but to rubber stamp and inflate the man whose ambition and thirst for the spotlight have turned governing into a power-grabbing spectacle.