DeSantis Targets Hot-Button Social Issues for New Florida Legislative Session as Presidential Bid Looms

On the agenda: expanding the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill’s protections to older children and cracking down on the use of ‘preferred pronouns’ that don’t reflect one’s biological gender.

AP/John Locher, file
Governor DeSantis on November 19, 2022, at Las Vegas. AP/John Locher, file

With a potential presidential bid from Governor DeSantis on the horizon, the coming legislative session in Florida will likely be the governor’s last opportunity to put legislative points on the board before he announces his campaign.

During last week’s state of the state address in Florida, the governor said “you ain’t seen nothing yet” as he prepares to push new headline-grabbing “anti-woke” legislation covering schools, libel and defamation, and other priorities such as gun rights and abortion.

The first bill introduced to the Florida house this session would expand the school voucher program in Florida by removing any income requirements. While lower income Floridians have had access to a voucher program since Governor Bush created the nation’s first program in 1999, the legislature is looking to remove income requirements.

The changes would create universal school vouchers, opening to wealthier Floridians the opportunity to collect nearly $8,000 a student per year from the state government to go toward private or home schooling.

With about 2.9 million newly eligible students, moving to a universal voucher program could cost the state up to $23.2 billion a year. The enacted state budget for fiscal year 2023 is $109.9 billion.

The governor has expressed some reservations about universal school vouchers, suggesting there could be a cutoff for high-income households, but said it wasn’t a “deal breaker.”

“If you have a family that’s very high income, they already have school choice,” Mr DeSantis said. “They don’t necessarily need to be eligible for the program.”

Another marquee item on the agenda for this legislative session will be the expansion of the governor’s signature Florida Parental Rights in Education Act (known to its detractors as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill), and there are at least three bills that would do so.

Florida H.B. 1223 and S.B. 1320 would both ban school employees from asking students for their preferred pronouns or sharing their own pronouns with students if they “do not correspond” with their genetic sex. Both bills would also expand the ban on discussing sexual identity and gender orientation through the eighth grade. Under current law, the ban extends to third grade.

One minor difference between the bills is that S.B. 1320 would require teachers to instruct students that “biological males impregnate biological females.”

The third bill, H.B. 1069, would legally codify in Florida that “reproductive roles are binary, stable, and unchangeable.” The Florida legislature would also be responsible for approving sex education materials instead of local school boards.

Mr. DeSantis has also publicly mulled the idea of passing legislation to prohibit universities from funding diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and the teaching of critical race theory or offering majors or minors in gender studies or critical race theory.

The governor has also said he wants the legislature to pass new laws restricting teacher unions in terms of pay for union officials and the collection of dues. “We don’t need these partisan unions being involved in the school system like they are, where they try to distort and use our schools for partisan purposes,” Mr. DeSantis said.

Outside the realm of education, the governor is also supporting changes to defamation and libel law. The most prominent proposal in the legislature would directly challenge New York Times v. Sullivan.

“When the media attacks me, I have a platform to fight back,” Mr. DeSantis told Fox News last month. “When they attack everyday citizens, these individuals don’t have the adequate resources to fight back.”

One bill, H.B. 951, is aimed at challenging the “actual malice” standard in court and allowing for state legislatures to write their own defamation and libel laws.

In the case of this bill, it would expand the definition of defamation to include “inherently implausible claims” and those claims where there are “obvious reasons to doubt” their veracity.

It would also make allegations of discrimination based on “race, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity” defamatory under Florida state law and require those alleging discrimination to prove their innocence.

The governor has also signaled that tort reform would be a priority for him in the coming session, and said that Florida is considered a “judicial hellhole” under the current system.

He said that the problems are “due to excessive litigation and a legal system that benefitted the lawyers more than people who are injured.”

The bill would curb trial attorney fees, provide more transparency to juries when awarding lawsuit payouts, and alter Florida’s “bad faith” law so that negligence alone would no longer be a basis for a lawsuit. 

Although the governor has signaled that gun rights are not a top priority, he has promised to sign whatever permitless carry bill lands on his desk. 

As it stands, the state senate and house leaders appear to be pushing toward permitless concealed carry but not open carry, with gun rights advocates favoring and law enforcement opposing full open carry.

The governor has adopted a similar position on a piece of legislation that would impose a six-week abortion ban, promising to sign what the legislature passed. The state currently allows abortion up to 15 weeks.

“We’re for pro-life. I urge the legislature to work, produce good stuff, and we will sign,” Mr. DeSantis said at a February press conference.

The New York Sun

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