By RYAN DAILEY
News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — The 2024 legislative session kicked off this week, as Gov. Ron DeSantis urged lawmakers to “stay the course” and House and Senate leaders agreed to use gambling money to fund the further expansion of a state wildlife corridor.
DeSantis, who has spent much of his time in Iowa trying to sway voters in his campaign for president, made a pitstop in the Florida Capitol to deliver his annual State of the State address. The governor’s speech in the state House chamber formally launching the 60-day session came six days before the crucial Iowa caucuses.
Without directly discussing his bid for the White House, DeSantis repeatedly tried to contrast Florida with other states and the federal government on a variety of issues, such as public safety, financial management and immigration enforcement.
“Together, we will keep Florida free and provide hope for a revival of the American spirit throughout these United States,” DeSantis said as he closed the 35-minute speech.
Much of DeSantis’ remarks focused on what he described as accomplishments — some of which have proven controversial — such as restricting abortion rights, revamping election laws and dramatically expanding school vouchers.
“My message is simple: Stay the course,” he said.
Democrats slammed DeSantis, saying he has focused on the presidential campaign instead of the state’s needs. House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, called him the “absentee governor.”
“I was surprised that there was no real vision for Florida. I came away feeling, OK, so where do you want to take us next?” Driskell told reporters. “I felt like he said, ‘We’ve done all these great things, let’s keep doing these same great things.’ There was nothing fresh. That was surprising to me. Because it was an opportunity for him to make his case to the people of Florida as well, and I think he missed it.”
Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, gave more defined previews of what Floridans can expect from the Republican-dominated Legislature during the session.
Lawmakers are expected to make health-care changes including Passidomo’s Live Healthy legislative package that is designed, in part, to shift patients away from emergency rooms and expand medical residency programs. Renner also pointed to a potential focus on mental health and bringing more transparency about health-care prices.
The two head honchos are in agreement about one big issue — using money from the state’s gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to provide money for land acquisition and management.
“Using these new revenues to acquire and manage conservation lands and invest in our clean water infrastructure will be a phenomenal return on investment for our state,” Passidomo said in remarks to the Senate. “I hope the legislation will earn your support.”
Renner also backed the idea of using part of the money for conservation-related projects, saying that “Florida’s long-term infrastructure needs far exceed current funding.”
CUTTING RED TAPE
The first measures to pass in either chamber came Wednesday in the Senate, as members approved a scaled-back plan to take regulations off the books for public schools.
The legislative package, a priority of Passidomo, consists of three wide-ranging bills that are aimed at what she characterized as “cutting red tape” for the state school system.
One measure underwent a significant change that nixed a provision related to the state’s third-grade literacy policy, after it was heavily criticized by former Gov. Jeb Bush. The bill (SB 7004) would make changes related to state assessments and instruction. For example, the bill would remove a requirement that high-school students pass the state’s tenth-grade English-language arts exams in order to graduate. Instead, the exam would count for 30 percent of the students’ final course grade.
But part of the proposal received high-profile pushback from Bush, who nearly 25 years ago championed reforms that the measure sought to — in Bush’s words — water down.
A previous version of the bill proposed to remove a requirement that third-grade students score adequately on an English-language arts exam to advance to fourth grade. Instead, the measure would have changed the policy to allow parents to override decisions about retaining students if the parent “determines retention is not in the best interest of the student and approves a good cause exemption” to advance the student.
That part of the measure was removed through revisions to the bill that were backed by its sponsor Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee.
Simon has touted the deregulation effort as a way to let teachers place more focus on classroom instruction, which he has said would benefit students.
“Over the years, our education code has only grown. And there are great ideas from great senators and great House members. But those great ideas have added up over the years, and it’s cost our students,” Simon said just before the Senate unanimously passed the measure.
POWER TAKES REINS
The state Republican Party’s executive committee Monday removed embattled Chairman Christian Ziegler and elevated Vice Chairman Evan Power to lead the party as the 2024 election year gets underway.
Power said after the meeting the party is “moving forward.” While acknowledging a pause in fundraising, he said he didn’t anticipate lingering effects from the scandal surrounding Ziegler, who has been under police investigation because of an alleged sexual assault.
“I think it’s a blip on the radar,” Power said. “I think we’re going to be able to pick up today fundraising-wise and move the party forward. So, I don’t think there’s going to be a long-term impact. I think you’re going to see us win big again in November.”
STORY OF THE WEEK: Legislative leaders pitched the use of gambling money to help pay for further expansion of a state wildlife corridor and other environmental projects as they kicked off the 2024 legislative session on Tuesday.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I would suspect that if you asked parents across our state what the number one challenge is, what the number one issue is, facing the wellbeing and health of their child, social media would be one of the primary concerns.” Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island, referring to a bill he’s sponsoring to curb minors’ social-media use.