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DeSantis won’t play as big a role in Florida’s legislative session this year

Written by The Anand Market

Updated on:

When the Florida Legislature begins its annual session Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis will be in attendance — fleetingly. After delivering his State of the State address, he will leave for Iowa, where his campaign schedule is busy ahead of the Jan. 15 Republican presidential caucuses. Few in Tallahassee expect to see much of him in the months that follow.

His absence will be a notable change from recent years, when Mr. DeSantis loomed large in the Legislature, with all of his major wishes granted by friendly lawmakers. Republicans who control both chambers were eager to curry favor with the state’s political superstar, who appeared poised to lead their party’s presidential campaign.

Instead, Mr. DeSantis’ presidential bid struggled. His talk of making America more like Florida has lost much of its luster as the frenzied culture wars that have gripped the state have proven less appealing to national audiences. So far, the governor is far behind former President Donald J. Trump in the polls.

Approval of Mr. DeSantis’s job among Floridians has fallen, according to polls. He remains a powerful figure, capable of destroying lawmakers’ dreams with his veto. But everyone at the Capitol knows that Mr. DeSantis is not as invincible as he once seemed.

“If he were leading the presidential race, things would be a lot different,” said state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat and House minority leader. “He’s finding out that all those culture wars he fought for in Florida aren’t getting him any votes.”

So lawmakers prepared for a different kind of session, one that might feel like a break from Mr. DeSantis’s determination over the past two years to reshape state policies in an eye-catching way that he hoped , would appeal to Republican primary voters.

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To be sure, Mr. DeSantis has proposed a budget that prioritizes some of his top issues on the campaign trail. He called for more money to transport newly arrived migrants from the southwest border to states like Massachusetts and California, and to pay teachers extra if they take a state-sanctioned civics course. State with a clearly conservative ideological tendency.

But whereas in previous years he popped into almost every corner of Florida to push his proposals, unveiling new ones almost every day as the Legislature prepared to convene, Mr. DeSantis spent the weeks preceding this session to travel through the states voting in advance.

It is unclear how long Mr. DeSantis will remain in the race if he performs poorly in these competitions. But by March 8, when the legislative session is scheduled to end, about half the states will have held their primaries.

“It’s definitely going to be a different session,” said state Rep. Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican. But he added that a slower pace would simply reflect the governor’s success in transforming Florida over the past two years, noting, “He got everything passed.”

Mr. DeSantis has enacted so many significant and controversial policies since 2021 that they — and the lawsuits challenging many of them — have become difficult to follow.

Private school tuition vouchers for all public school students who want them. Restrictions on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Bans on diversity and equity programs at public universities. Death sentences without a unanimous jury. Carrying concealed weapons without a license. Redraw congressional districts to favor Republicans more. Ban transitional care for transgender children. Weaker tenure protections for public university professors. An office charged with investigating election crimes. Stripping Disney of some of its powers.

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But a month before the new session was scheduled to begin, as lawmakers gathered in Tallahassee for committee meetings, few could articulate the governor’s priorities for 2024. (A sex scandal involving the Republican Party chairman of Florida, who is expected to be replaced on Monday, did not help).

Privately, some lawmakers say a slower session suits them just fine, especially heading into a general election year, when many politicians would prefer to finish quickly in Tallahassee and then be free to campaign. This is actually why, every four years, legislative sessions in Florida begin in January rather than March.

New bills proposed by lawmakers include one that would remove state restrictions on when 16- and 17-year-olds can work, and others aimed at expanding the health care workforce.

Nick Iarossi, a Tallahassee lobbyist and co-chairman of Mr. DeSantis’ campaign finance committee, said lawmakers and the governor have done more than focus on culture war issues in recent years, but those issues have held back most of the attention. With fewer controversial proposals from Mr. DeSantis, “the things that made him popular in Florida,” like raising teacher pay and funding Everglades restoration, could receive more attention, said Mr. Iarossi.

Democrats, who have little influence in Republican-controlled Tallahassee, accuse the governor of being an absentee executive as he campaigns for higher office. They say he and Republican lawmakers have failed to help Floridians get relief from high housing and insurance costs.

Floridians “wonder why the government is so focused on banning books,” Ms. Driskell said. “They want to know: ‘What does Parliament do for me?’ And we don’t have an answer for them, because it all depends on DeSantis’ ambitions.”

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In his new budget, Mr. DeSantis recommended a one-year waiver of taxes, fees and assessments on property insurance for homes worth up to $750,000. Floridians’ rates increased by an average of 57 percent in 2022, the highest in the country.

Kathleen Passidomo, the Senate president, said Mr. DeSantis was still in Tallahassee often — “He’s here more than you think” — and even when he’s away, he stays in frequent contact.

And lawmakers know that even if the governor withdraws from the presidential race, he will remain a political force on Capitol Hill, with three years left in office.

“He still has his veto,” Ms. Driskell said.