2023 Legislative Session Kick Off Report

Florida lawmakers are convening in Tallahassee this morning to kick off the state’s annual regular legislative session – a 60-day window when lawmakers discuss, debate and pass legislation, as well as craft and pass a state budget for the coming fiscal year.

This session will be the first of Governor Ron DeSantis’s second term leading the state, following his landmark win last November. This will also be the first of two sessions with Senate President Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) and House Speaker Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast) at the helm of their respective chambers of the Florida Legislature. Today’s official kickoff follows months of preparation, with state House and Senate members periodically holding interim legislative committee meetings over recent months.

Heading into session, Florida’s conservative leadership is perhaps the strongest it has ever been. During the November election, Republicans increased their numbers in the state legislature, gaining supermajority status in both chambers. They also turned the Florida Cabinet from purple to red, saw a win for the Governor by a historic margin, and gained seats in the state’s Congressional Delegation. The working relationships between Florida’s executive and legislative leaders are also perhaps more harmonious than at any time in recent history. Throughout the interim period, both President Passidomo and Speaker Renner expressed a commitment to seeing the Governor’s legislative agenda to fruition this session. This, combined with Republicans’ supermajority rule, will enable the Party to see success on many hot-button conservative issues.

In terms of topics up for consideration over the next two months, the docket is already quite full, with comprehensive issues like tort reform and changes to the state’s death penalty laws up for debate. President Passidomo has placed a large focus on affordable housing during her time in the legislature, and members are expected to pass comprehensive legislation relating to the issue this session. Speaker Renner is pushing several conservative priority issues, including changing state gun laws and expanding school choice. While the agenda seems expansive for a 60-day session, several of these initiatives were filed during the committee week period and have already made significant progress through the legislative process.

Provided below is an outline of some of the key issues to be discussed and debated this session.

State Budget

  • Record Surplus

While other states have struggled in recent years as a result of the lasting effects of Covid-related shut downs, inflation and the rising costs of living, Florida’s revenue numbers have long surpassed estimates and expectations. In fact, last summer it was reported that the state had amassed a surplus of $21.8 billion for the ending fiscal year – the highest in state history. Governor DeSantis’s determination to keep the state open for business has resulted in a state economy that is stronger than ever, with tourism restored, sales tax collections surpassing expectations, record amounts set aside in the state’s Rainy Day (Budget Stabilization) fund, and Florida’s unemployment rate consistently remaining lower than the national rate.

  • 2023 Spending Priorities

With state coffers full, last month Governor DeSantis released his budget recommendations, totaling nearly $114.8 billion, for the coming Fiscal Year. The Governor’s “Framework for Freedom” spending plan places continued focus on increasing Florida’s K-12 education spending, with a $200 million increase for teacher salaries, and funding state environmental programs, including more than $1 billion for Everglades Restoration and water quality programs. The Governor’s budget also places more funds aside in reserves, allocates dollars for salary increases for state workers, and provides additional tax exemptions for Florida consumers.

The release of Governor DeSantis’s spending proposal is the initial step in the state’s annual appropriations process. The official budget will be crafted by state legislators throughout the session, with the final budget likely being passed just as the session draws to a close. Once the budget is passed by lawmakers, it’s sent to the Governor for his review, veto action, and final approval.

Legal Matters to See Major Changes this Session

  • Tort Reform

Lawmakers are considering a large tort reform package, which is being collectively pushed by Governor DeSantis, President Passidomo and Speaker Renner. The legislation provides private businesses with protections from expensive lawsuits. The bills include language to place caps on medical damages, amend attorney fee requirements, and reduce the statute of limitations. The language would also keep businesses from having to pay damages when they are only partially at fault (if passed, defendants would have to be at least 51 percent at fault to pay damages).

  • Death Penalty

Six years ago, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that juries must be unanimous when recommending the death penalty. In 2020, the Court reversed this ruling, opening the door for state lawmakers to change the law. This year, legislation has been filed in both chambers to allow for a death penalty sentence when eight out of 12 jurors recommend it.

This proposed change was spurred by last year’s sentencing of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter, who was found guilty of murdering 17 people at the school but was only sentenced to life in prison. His sentence, which caused outrage among the victims’ families and others following the trial, was due to the jury not being unanimous on the death penalty.

  • Defamation

Lawmakers will also review and file legislation regarding a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision that protects media companies and reporters from defamation lawsuits. This move is supported by Governor DeSantis and Speaker Renner.

“Anti-Woke” Initiatives

  • Investments

Lawmakers will consider a proposal crafted by Governor DeSantis to prohibit investments using “woke” ratings based on environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards. The Governor’s intention is to separate politics from economic decisions. If passed, the proposal would prohibit financial institutions, asset managers and other organizations from basing investments on social or political factors. These factors typically include issues like climate change and racial inequality. The proposal, which is supported by Speaker Renner, is expected to pass this session.

  • Gender-Related Legislation

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have filed legislation to make it illegal for Florida doctors to provide certain treatments and therapies to transgender minors. While the House and Senate bills currently differ, both chambers outline punishments for doctors who violate the rule, including the loss of medical licenses in the House bill and criminal charges in the Senate legislation. The House legislation also prevents health insurers from covering the treatments.

In addition, Senator Erin Grall (R-Fort Pierce) has filed legislation known as the “Safety in Private Spaces Act” to require that restrooms and changing rooms be gender-specific only. On the House side, lawmakers will consider legislation to expand the prohibition of schools from instructing students on issues like sexual orientation and gender identity. While the current law applies to students up to third grade, this measure would expand the law to students through eighth grade. These are hot-button issues that are certain to cause significant debate and public testimony as the bills move through the committee process.

Other Key Legislative Initiatives

  • Gun Carry

Laws Under a proposal filed by Rep. Chuck Brannan (R-Macclenny), a Florida gunowner would no longer need to follow the current licensing process to carry a concealed weapon, which includes criminal background checks and firearm training courses. If passed, the new “constitutional carry” law would instead only require those carrying concealed firearms to have valid identification. This legislation is strongly supported by legislative leaders and Governor DeSantis, and is moving quickly through the session process. While there is significant opposition to the measure, supporters point out that the current process and restrictions in place for purchasing a gun in Florida will remain unchanged.

  • Affordable Housing

In recent years, several areas of the state have seen the lack of affordable housing options reach crisis levels. This issue was exacerbated by the 2020 pandemic, which brought an influx of people moving into Florida from other areas of the country, and is a major priority for President Passidomo this session.

A comprehensive legislative proposal, sponsored by Senator Alexis Catalayud (R-Miami), is already moving quickly through the process. The “live local” legislation includes a number of provisions to address the housing crisis, including incentivizing private investment in affordable housing, limiting local government oversight of zoning and building requirements, and prohibiting rent controls.

  • School Choice

Lawmakers in both chambers are considering comprehensive school choice expansion legislation. The “universal school choice” bills would make taxpayer-funded scholarship programs available to all parents and students who want to attend schools other than traditional public schools, including private schools and home-schooling programs.

  • AP Courses

Lawmakers are likely to consider legislation this session relating to the Florida College Board, which sets the curriculum for college-level courses provided for high school students, known as Advanced Placement. This results from tension between the Board and Governor DeSantis over the inclusion of race-related curriculum in AP Courses. While the Board initially removed the curriculum, tension remains with executive officials, which will place current standards and practices under review by legislators this session.

  • School Board Races

Lawmakers are also set to consider legislation to place a constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot to change term-limits for school board members from 12 years to eight years. The measure would also change school board races from non-partisan to partisan.

  • Immigration

Building on his success during the recent special session, which saw the passage of a measure to utilize state funds to fly migrants out of Florida and into other areas of the country, Governor DeSantis is now pushing for additional immigration measures this session. The Governor’s plan would expand the use of E-Verify, the system used by employers to verify the legal status of employees. The legislation would also increase penalties for smuggling migrants into the country.

Going Forward

There is much to be decided and much at stake in the legislature in the coming months, with critical state policy and funding issues up for discussion. As of this writing, members have already filed more than 1,600 bills for consideration this session. The number of those bills that will actually be heard and moved through the process, however, will be much smaller. Typically, only about 200 policy bills pass completely through the legislative process by the time session wraps up.

The 60-day session is scheduled to conclude on Friday, May 5th.