Legislative ‘mend-it’ session, governor to get superpowers, more state controls over education
It’s Monday, Feb. 6, and the start of an extraordinary mend-it special session. Starting today, Florida legislators will meet in a rarely-seen, pre-session special session — one month before the regular session — in order to mend some holes in the laws they passed last year. The common denominator: the governor’s implementation of high-profile bills targeting Disney, migrants, and felons voting did not go as planned.
The short and sweet explanation: The law dissolving Disney’s governing structure could not be implemented because lawmakers overlooked an obscure statute that said the district’s $1 billion in debts had to be paid first. DeSantis’ project to relocate migrants is under threat of being deemed unconstitutional by a court because he had to pay to fly migrants into the state in order to relocate them out. And the law that created the Office of Elections Crimes and Security has been defanged by two courts who said the state didn’t have jurisdiction over election fraud cases.
WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT
Disney district to stay, with more oversight: The solution to the Disney problem is that Walt Disney World will keep its special taxing district, including its ability to tax itself to pay off its debt, but there will now be a state board to oversee its operations.
DeSantis to get migrant superpowers: The solution to the fact that the governor ignored the legislative provision in the 2022-23 budget that said he could relocate migrants, but only if they were from Florida, is to rewrite the law. Legislative leaders now want to expand the governor’s power to use Florida taxpayer funds to transport migrants from any state, even those not headed to Florida.
Expanding power to prosecute voting crimes: And the solution to the fact that local state attorneys had balked at pursuing the cases against felons who voted illegally in 2020 after the state gave them voter identification cards is to change the law to hand the cases to the Office of Statewide Prosecution, which reports to Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican. Two courts had ruled that statewide prosecutors could not pursue voting-related crimes.
Students angry over halt to AP class: Miami-Dade County was one of 60 districts offering the pilot Advanced Placement course on African American Studies but when the Florida Department of Education objected to the content as “lacking educational value,” the district halted the course in mid-year. Students say they’re angry and frustrated.
Board revises Black studies course: The College Board released the final curriculum of its new Advanced Placement African American Studies course last week. It left out references to topics or works DeSantis criticized, such as lessons on Black Lives Matter, reparations for the harms of slavery and racial discrimination, as well as suggested readings from scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, an architect of critical race theory. The board denied it had caved to pressure and noted that the topics aren’t barred from the course and teachers are free to include the reading in assignments. Black leaders criticized the board for “watering down” the course to placate politicians.
State wants athletes’ menstrual details: Florida could require all high school student athletes to disclose information regarding their menstrual history — a move that’s already drawing pushback from opponents who say the measure is aimed at targeting transgender youth. A proposed draft of a physical education form was published last month by the Florida High School Athletic Association, a group that oversees interscholastic athletic programs across the state. It proposes making currently optional questions regarding a student’s menstrual cycle mandatory.
New controls on universities: The governor announced a package of major reforms to Florida’s higher education system last week, including tighter controls on faculty tenure, the establishment of “civics institutes” at three universities, prohibitions on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, and allowing university boards to conduct reviews of tenured faculty members “at any time.” He also said he wants to changes standards and course content “to ensure higher education is rooted in the values of liberty and western tradition.”
Corcoran takes over New College: Richard Corcoran, the fiery former House speaker who led the state Education Department as it banned “critical race theory” from schools, was selected to lead DeSantis’ overhaul of New College of Florida. After adding conservative leaders to New College’s board of trustees, DeSantis said he also plans to invest tens of millions of dollars into the Sarasota liberal arts college. This year’s budget recommendation will include $15 million toward faculty and student recruitment at the school, along with $10 million recurring annually.
Angry students greet New College board: Carrying signs and wearing stickers and buttons, hundreds of students, faculty and alumni filled the courtyard outside the building where the six new trustees appointed by the governor to New College’s board of trustees were to meet for the first time. The trustees asserted their presence, proposing to rid New College of its diversity office and talking about solving a “crisis.”
WHAT WE’RE WATCHING
DeSantis proposes record budget: The governor has proposed a record $114.8 billion state budget for 2023-24 that, if approved, would be a 26% increase in the state budget since DeSantis took office in 2019. The measure includes another $12 million to move migrants from around the country as well as year-round tax cuts on everyday items, including baby cribs and strollers, pet food and medication and gas stoves. He also is proposing pay raises for state workers and prosecutors.
Eliminating firearms permits: With the endorsement of some Florida sheriffs, Florida House Speaker Paul Renner unveiled legislation last week to allow people in Florida to carry concealed firearms without a permit and without training. Twenty-five states already have what supporters call “constitutional carry” measures.
Turning back clock on death penalty: Florida could soon be the only state to allow judges to override a jury verdict and give the death penalty under proposed legislation to re-craft Florida’s capital punishment system. The language is nearly identical to Florida’s previous statute, which allowed judicial override until 2016, when the Legislature reworked the statute following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said judges had too much power, instead of juries, when it came to the death penalty.
Court deletes diversity: The Florida Supreme Court last week deleted part of a rule that has allowed judges to take courses in “fairness and diversity” to meet a continuing-education requirement. The change, backed by six conservative justices, drew a strongly worded dissent from Justice Jorge Labarga, who wrote that it “paves the way for a complete dismantling of all fairness and diversity initiatives in the State Courts System.”
Judge gives DeSantis new powers: Leon County Circuit Court Judge Angela Dempsey handed the governor a victory that could have far-reaching implications for public records in Florida. In multiple lawsuits, DeSantis’ lawyers have claimed that the governor wields executive privilege, a special right invoked by U.S. presidents that shields them from disclosing information of their choosing. Dempsey agreed with DeSantis’ attorneys that he, too, possesses executive privilege. The case, which is being appealed, sets up a high-stakes test of Florida’s government transparency laws and open the door to the shielding of public records by the governor.
Contracted services but no contract documents: Dempsey also sided with the Florida Department of Transportation and Vertol Systems Company alleging they did not fully comply with public-records requests about controversial state-funded flights of migrants to Massachusetts. Her reasoning: There was no evidence that the documents they were supposed to have as part of the state contract existed.
Court to review marijuana ballot measure: A proposed constitutional amendment to allow recreational use of marijuana in Florida passed a preliminary hurdle to get on the 2024 ballot last week. The “Smart & Safe Florida” political committee, which is bankrolled by the multistate cannabis operator Trulieve, submitted 294,037 valid petition signatures as of Thursday afternoon, more than enough petition signatures to trigger a Florida Supreme Court review of the measure.
Miami Herald Capitol Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas curates the Politics and Policy in the Sunshine State newsletter. We appreciate our readers, and if you have any ideas or suggestions, please drop me a note at email@example.com.
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