When Florida legislators kick off their 2023 legislative session Tuesday, expect a number of bills that will be red meat for the majority's Republican base.
Among them are major proposals to expand gun rights, further restrict diversity efforts at public universities and expand the ability to sue media outlets for defamation — all measures that shed light on the direction of a prospective presidential bid by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
With a GOP supermajority holding power across both chambers in Tallahassee, DeSantis will face little meaningful resistance in shaping the state’s politics as he sees fit, politics watchers in the state said, as he continues to build out a likely presidential campaign.
“Whatever the governor wants to get through, it will get through this session,” said Susan MacManus, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Florida. “It’s going to offer some clues — some huge clues — as to what kind of campaign he’s going to run."
A DeSantis spokesperson declined to answer questions about the coming session. The governor’s recent memoir frequently trumpets his accomplishments in Florida as models for national policy. One chapter is even called “Make America Florida,” and he writes that “the Florida blueprint” is a “blueprint for America’s revival.”
Here are some of the biggest items the GOP Legislature will be focusing on in its March 7-to-May 5 session.
Expanding gun rights
Republican leaders have already introduced legislation that would allow people to carry concealed loaded guns anywhere without permits — a proposal DeSantis has signaled is one of his top priorities for the coming session.
“This was something that I’ve always supported,” he said in December. “It’ll be something that will be done in the regular session.”
Under current Florida law, people who seek to carry concealed guns in public are required to get concealed weapons licenses from the state. A “constitutional carry” measure — as conservatives gun rights activists call the bill — or “permitless carry” — the term preferred by gun safety and gun control activists, as well as neutral groups — would eliminate the requirement.
In recent weeks, however, Senate Republicans have combined the legislation with measures they say would increase school safety, like creating a standardized school threat assessment process and expanding a program that allows school district employees to carry guns at schools.
Democrats have blasted the combination as a political ploy to make the permitless carry proposal more palatable to voters.
“They should be two separate bills,” state Sen. Jason Pizzo, a noted DeSantis critic, said in an interview. “They’re not germane. ... They shouldn’t be combined together.”
Cracking down on anything 'woke'
DeSantis’ heavy lean into culture war issues related to education has helped raise his national profile. Conservatives have celebrated his 2022 “Stop WOKE Act,” which in effect curtailed conversations about race in schools; his pressure on the College Board, which appeared to prompt the group to water down its Advanced Placement African American studies course (the group claims it didn't make the changes because of DeSantis); and his retaliation against Disney after it objected to a piece of legislation — dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics — to restrict teaching young students about sexual orientation and gender identity.
He’s not about to stop that approach.
Another Republican-proposed bill in the Legislature would build on those efforts by cracking down on diversity programs at state universities. The bill, HB 999, would consolidate state control over such schools. It would allow the Florida Board of Governors, in effect, to force universities to remove majors and minors in such subjects as critical race theory and gender studies and to bar spending on programs or activities that support them. The Board of Governors oversees the state’s public universities, and 14 of its 17 members are appointed by the governor.
The bill would also give schools’ boards of trustees the authority to review faculty members’ tenure at any time.
In addition, DeSantis and state Republicans are not letting up on their focus on targeting transgender people.
A pair of corresponding bills in the state House and Senate would, if enacted, ban requiring students, educators and other school employees from using pronouns that "do not correspond with that person’s sex." They would also ban school employees from sharing their own pronouns if they do not “correspond” with their sexes and from asking students for their preferred pronouns.
The same bills would also expand the Parental Rights in Education Act, which that critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law, by extending a ban on teaching students about sexual orientation and gender identity through the eighth grade (the current law implemented such a ban through the third grade).
Andres Malave, an aide to Republican House Speaker Paul Renner, disputed that any focus by legislators on high-profile culture war-related legislation like HB 999 was coming from the governor’s office.
“These proposals are all member-driven, and they will move their way through the appropriate processes,” he said in an interview.
Going after the media
Another bill expected to get serious consideration, at DeSantis’ urging, would make it easier to successfully sue media organizations for defamation.
The bill, HB 991, would limit the “actual malice” requirement that has traditionally allowed journalists some room for error so they’re not pressured to self-censor while holding powerful people accountable. The term “actual malice” refers to the idea that people acted on information they knew to be false or with reckless disregard for its accuracy.
Notably, the bill would also classify allegations of discrimination against other people on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity as defamation.
Experts have raised substantial questions about the bill’s constitutionality and legality, given that it includes several provisions that would seem to contradict landmark Supreme Court rulings on First Amendment rights.
The bill in essence puts in writing former President Donald Trump’s calls during his 2016 campaign “to open up our libel laws," and its movement through the Legislature would advance the DeSantis administration’s combative approach to the news media.
In a roundtable discussion last month about “media defamation practices,” DeSantis urged the Legislature to act on the issue, saying, “Legacy media outlets increasingly divorce themselves from the truth and instead try to elevate preferred narratives and partisan activism over reporting the facts.”
Pizzo said about the bill, “DeSantis is just literally copying [Trump’s] playbook.”
‘We’ll know where he’s going by what happens in this session’
Other conservative bills are getting national attention, including one that, if it is enacted, would eliminate the Democratic Party in the state and another that would require bloggers who write about the governor and legislators to register with the state.
Despite the Republican supermajority in the Legislature, many Florida politics watchers don’t expect those bills to pass.
“I call them silliness bills,” MacManus said. “I think there is a danger in moving forward with bills like those if [DeSantis] anticipates running for president.”
The Legislature will also consider more conventional Republican proposals pushed by DeSantis, like "record tax relief" and an education plan that would boost teachers’ salaries while limiting school board terms and stripping unions of leverage in negotiating pay for educators.
“We’ll know where he’s going by what happens in this session,” MacManus said.