Florida lawmakers wrapped up the 2023 legislative session yesterday with little fanfare, after approving a $117 billion state budget for the coming year.
In many ways, the scene for session was set last November, with general election results bringing a Republican supermajority in both chambers of the legislature and an historic win for Governor DeSantis. This essentially gave the Governor, House Speaker Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast) and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) the political capital to set their agendas and see their priorities through to success, and resulted in a session that was anything but typical. Over the past 60 days, lawmakers have passed an unprecedented number of highly partisan, often contentious issues, and generally seemed to do so with ease. Relationships between leaders remained harmonious, with President Passidomo and Speaker Renner working well together throughout session.
Many of the measures passed this year were direct priorities of Governor DeSantis, with his influence over the session being stronger than perhaps any other Governor in recent history. These priorities covered some of the most substantive issues addressed by the legislature in many years, including curriculum at both the K-12 and higher education levels, certain medical treatments for minors, tort reform for private businesses, and changes to state gun laws, as well as a wide array of measures to combat “woke” policies in various public and private forums throughout the state.
Perhaps the biggest product of the Governor’s influence was the approval of legislation to clarify that Florida’s existing resign-to-run law does not apply to an official running for President. This clears the way for Governor DeSantis to officially announce his intent to run in the Republican Presidential Primary next year, which many anticipate he will do sometime this month.
2023-2024 State Budget
→ STATE SPENDING
With Florida’s post-pandemic tourism restored and sales tax collections continuously surpassing expectations over the past two years, Florida lawmakers kicked off this year’s session with a record surplus. This allowed members to utilize an optimistic approach to crafting the state budget for the coming year, with the final legislative spending plan totaling $117 billion – more than $2 billion more than the plan recommended by the Governor and around $7 billion more than the current year’s budget. The plan boosts funding for education and housing programs and allocates pay raises for state employees. Members were also able to dedicate additional funds for state reserves, resulting in a total of around $10.9 billion stored away in savings. The budget bill was also passed with an accompanying tax package, which includes a series of sales tax holidays and tax reductions, and provides billions in incentives for Florida consumers.
The state budget is the only item lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass each legislative session. It’s also the only item over which the Governor has line-item veto authority. Once all budget details are finalized, the plan will be sent to the Governor for his action.
Record Success on Leadership Priorities
Session kicked off in high gear this year, with leaders tackling some of the weightiest topics head on rather than holding the more divisive issues for the end of session. As a result, many top leadership priorities, including comprehensive tort reform and a massive expansion of the state’s school choice program, were passed and signed into law before lawmakers had even reached the midpoint of session. Provided below is an outline of leadership priorities and other matters addressed and passed by lawmakers this session.
Early in session, a controversial bill reducing Florida’s abortion limit from 15 weeks to six weeks’ gestation was passed by lawmakers and signed into law by the Governor.
→ DEATH PENALTY
In response to the gunman behind the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting receiving a life sentence, lawmakers approved legislation this session to undo the state law requiring that juries be unanimous on death penalty sentences. The new law will allow for a death penalty sentence when eight out of 12 jurors recommend it.
Lawmakers also approved legislation allowing for death penalty sentences in certain cases of sexual assault against children under age 12. Both death penalty bills have already been signed into law by Governor DeSantis.
→ ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Prior to budget conference, the House and Senate differed on state funding for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency. While the Senate proposed an increase, the House was looking to eliminate the funding altogether. In compromise, the House met the Senate on Visit Florida funding, but in return, the Senate agreed to legislation to eliminate Enterprise Florida, the organization responsible for drawing businesses to the state. The powers and duties of Enterprise Florida will now be transferred to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), and the DEO will be renamed the Department of Commerce.
K-12 education matters addressed by lawmakers this year ran the gamut, from increasing access to private schools, to changing school schedules, to limiting what can be taught in the classroom.
• SCHOOL CHOICE – Members approved an expansion of the state’s taxpayer funded voucher program, which will now allow all of Florida’s K-12 students to utilize state funds to attend schools other than traditional public schools. The average scholarship per student totals close to $8,000. This bill was signed into law and has already taken effect.
• EXPANSION OF 2022 LAW – Lawmakers also approved legislation to expand the law passed last year that prohibits schools from providing instruction on issues like sexual orientation and gender identity to students. While last year’s bill applied to students in kindergarten through third grade, this year’s law extends to students through the eighth grade.
• SCHOOL START TIMES – Legislation to change start times for Florida’s public middle and high schools – requiring that middle schools start no earlier than 8:00 a.m. and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. – was approved by lawmakers this week.
→ DISNEY FIGHT
Continuing the ongoing fight between Governor DeSantis and Disney, lawmakers approved legislation this week to allow for the undoing of last-minute measures recently passed by Disney’s outgoing board members. Lawmakers also added language to a state transportation package that will now require Disney’s monorail system to be inspected by the Florida Department of Transportation.
→ GENDER ISSUES
This was easily one of the most hot-button issues addressed this session, with a series of bills supported by leadership, heavily debated by Democrat members, and ultimately approved through the legislative process.
• DRAG SHOW BILL – Legislation prohibiting venues hosting adult live performances from admitting minors was recently approved.
• BATHROOM BILL – Legislation requiring public facilities to provide restrooms and changing rooms for exclusive use by males or females based on their sex at birth was approved this week. While an earlier version of the bill included private businesses, that language was removed before passage.
• MEDICAL TREATMENTS FOR MINORS – After a long and tumultuous journey through the legislative process, a bill that will make it a felony for Florida doctors to provide gender-related medical treatments to minors in Florida was approved by lawmakers this week.
Lawmakers worked early in session to pass a “Constitutional Carry” bill, which strikes the previous requirement that gunowners must have a permit to legally carry a concealed weapon. The current process and restrictions in place for purchasing a gun in Florida remain unchanged. This bill has been signed into law.
→ HIGHER EDUCATION
This session, leaders placed a key focus on addressing what they see as problematic “woke” practices at Florida’s higher education institutions.
• POLITICAL LOYALTY – Legislation to prohibit state colleges and universities from requiring students and new hires to pledge or commit to certain political beliefs or ideologies was approved by lawmakers and is now headed to the Governor.
• DEI – Heavily-debated legislation to prohibit Florida colleges and universities from utilizing state dollars for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs was also approved.
A bill to combat the state’s housing crisis and provide incentives for private investment in affordable housing was heavily supported by President Passidomo and approved by lawmakers and the Governor earlier in session. Members also approved legislation to allow the state to preempt local regulation of rental housing agreements.
On Tuesday, lawmakers approved a wide-ranging immigration bill, which was one of the highest priorities of Governor DeSantis. The legislation requires businesses with 25 or more employees to utilize the federal E-Verify system to check the immigration status of employees. E-Verify is a U.S. Department of Homeland Security website utilized by businesses to determine if their employees are eligible to work legally in the United States. The bill also calls for the creation of a tracking system to monitor the costs of health care services provided to illegal immigrants in Florida hospitals.
Leaders made passing legislation prohibiting investments using “woke” ratings based on environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards an early priority. Under the measure, state and local government investment decisions must be based solely on financial factors, without consideration of social factors or issues. The bill also affects government contracting, and prohibits state and local governments from considering social or ideological beliefs when hiring vendors. Lastly, the legislation prohibits financial institutions from providing or denying services based on political beliefs or affiliations. This bill was signed into law by the Governor this week.
→ KIDCARE EXPANSION
Legislation to expand KidCare, the state’s program that provides subsidized health coverage to children in lower-income families that do not qualify for Medicaid, was approved this week. The new law will expand availability of the program to families who make up to 300
percent of the federal poverty level (prior to the change the threshold was 200 percent). This issue was a priority for Speaker Renner.
→ PRESCRIPTION DRUGS
Fulfilling another priority of Governor DeSantis, lawmakers approved legislation to increase state regulation of Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs), which serve as third party administrators of prescription drug programs.
→ TORT REFORM
Members placed early focus this session on passing comprehensive Tort Reform legislation, which provides private businesses with protections from expensive lawsuits, and amends state law relating to comparisons of fault in lawsuit cases. Prior to the passage of this bill, state law required that damages in a lawsuit be awarded based on the percentage of fault assigned to each party. The new law instead provides that a defendant must be at least 51 percent at fault to be required to pay damages in a lawsuit. This legislation was passed and signed into law in March.
The legislative process will continue over the coming weeks as measures approved by lawmakers are finalized and prepared for delivery to the Governor. Ultimately, out of nearly 1,900 bills filed, 356 passed successfully through the session process this year. At this time, 24 bills have been signed into law by Governor DeSantis. None have been vetoed thus far.
Once the Governor receives a bill, he has a total of 15 days to either sign it into law, veto it, or let it become law without his action. As previously noted, the budget is the only piece of legislation over which the Governor has line-item veto power. Our team is working continuously with state leaders on policy and appropriations issues that were approved during session and are headed to the Governor’s desk.
Once all 2023 session work has wrapped up, lawmakers will only get a quick break before reconvening in Tallahassee for committee meetings to prepare for next year’s session, which is set to start in January as 2024 is an election year.