Florida’s annual legislative session came to a close Friday, ending a 60-day period that saw Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) score a critical series of policy wins ahead of a likely 2024 presidential bid.
The governor had a busy two months; DeSantis enacted new abortion restrictions, navigated an ongoing fight with Disney and passed a sweeping elections bill that largely clears the way for him to launch a bid for the White House without having to step down as governor.
Here are some key takeaways from Florida’s historic 2023 legislative session:
DeSantis got most of what he wanted
Wielding the power of newly minted supermajorities, state Republican lawmakers kicked off their annual session with a clear goal: deliver DeSantis a long list of policy wins that he can tout to GOP voters, both in Florida and nationally.
For the most part, they accomplished that mission. Legislators approved multiple DeSantis-backed bills, including a measure allowing Floridians to carry concealed weapons without a permit, a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy and a bill ending the unanimous jury requirement for death penalty recommendations.
And the list goes on.
Legislators also passed a measure providing millions of dollars in funding for a controversial program that DeSantis used last year to fly dozens of migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, the wealthy Massachusetts resort town. They eased DeSantis’s path to a 2024 presidential bid by amending a law that would have required the governor to resign from office in order to seek the White House.
Taken together, the flurry of DeSantis-backed action in the legislature underscores both the immense influence that the governor now wields over Florida Republicans, as well as the jarring rightward shift of what was once considered a closely divided swing state.
“It’s been wild to see,” one state legislative aide said. “It at least used to be that the Senate was the more moderating influence, but that’s no longer the case. Everyone is with the governor.”
But not everything
By most measures, the 60-day legislative session was a success for DeSantis. But there were a few notable exceptions.
Legislation that would have made it easier to sue media outlets for defamation died in committee, despite DeSantis’s repeated appeals — both before and during session — to pass a measure cracking down on anonymous sources and lowering the standard for such lawsuits set by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly six decades ago.
And the sweeping immigration bill approved by the legislature fell somewhat short of DeSantis’s hopes. For example, while the measure requires medium- and large-sized employers to use the federal E-Verify system to check the work-authorization status of new employees, it carves out exceptions for smaller businesses.
State lawmakers also stopped short of granting DeSantis his proposed year-long tax break on certain household goods.
Yet there was little daylight between DeSantis and the Republican-controlled state legislature overall, and he is coming out of the annual session with more policy wins than any Florida governor in recent history.
Democrats aren’t leaving empty-handed
It wasn’t exactly a great legislative session for Democrats. But there were at least a few instances of bipartisanship that the party can tout.
On Thursday, for instance, the state Senate voted unanimously to expand Florida KidCare, the state’s subsidized children’s health insurance program. The measure, which was sponsored by Democratic Rep. Robin Bartleman, unanimously passed the state House earlier in the session.
Similarly, a measure banning the social media app TikTok from government-issued devices and networks passed both chambers of the legislature with unanimous support.
Yet Democrats were still working against the odds; the party has its smallest margins in the state legislature in years, and efforts to hold up or amend controversial measures were largely unsuccessful.
“State legislators are entrusted with the important responsibility of addressing the needs of Floridians,” state Sen. Shevrin Jones (D) said in a statement Friday. “Instead, legislative Republicans chose politics time and time again this session, missing real opportunities to deliver on the priorities on which we were elected to act.”
DeSantis’s priorities could come back to haunt him
DeSantis’s priorities over the past couple of months appeared tailor-made to solidify his reputation as a conservative fighter and endear him to the Republican base. But there are lingering questions about the broader appeal of his agenda.
Take the six-week abortion ban DeSantis signed into law last month, for example. While the legislation was praised by anti-abortion rights groups and activists, it inextricably ties DeSantis to a far-right position on an issue that national Republicans have struggled to navigate — and that Democrats have used to mobilize their voters with great success.
Likewise, there are signs that the governor’s ongoing feud with Disney may be rubbing many voters the wrong way.
DeSantis pushed the legislature to roll back Disney’s self-governing district in Central Florida after the company spoke out against a law barring classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity between kindergarten to the third grade.
And while early polling shows that most Republican voters are siding with DeSantis in the fight, nearly two-thirds of voters overall believe he’s simply punishing Disney for exercising its right to free speech.
It remains an open question as to whether those issues will weigh down DeSantis in a national campaign. The six-week abortion ban, for instance, won’t go into effect until the state Supreme Court weighs in on a challenge to a previous 15-week ban signed by DeSantis last year.
Regardless, this year’s legislative session gave his opponents plenty of political fodder.
The countdown to DeSantis 2024 is on
DeSantis has been moving toward a likely 2024 presidential campaign for months, but he was always expected to wait until after the legislature’s annual session to make a final decision.
And with lawmakers’ business in Tallahassee wrapped up, all eyes will be on DeSantis to make his next move.
Aides and allies to the Florida governor insist that there’s no exact timeline for an announcement, even as they concede that his intentions are clear. On Monday, DeSantis is set to have dinner with at least one major donor in Tallahassee, just the latest sign that he’s still eyeing the White House in 2024.
There’s also more than $110 million sitting in his state campaign committee and other allied groups, giving him a critical leg up over the competition, if and when he formally launches a campaign.
One thing is clear: With state lawmakers wrapping up their business, the countdown is on for DeSantis 2024.