Abortion, education and guns: DeSantis's proposals in Florida hint at potential 2024 campaign
Florida began its 60-day legislative session this week as Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis addressed the GOP-led Legislature in his highly anticipated State of the State speech, which has been widely viewed as an indicator of how he might promote himself as a potential 2024 presidential nominee.
“DeSantis is in a strong position within the state,” Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida, told Yahoo News. “A pliable Legislature with the supermajority of Republicans means that he can get basically whatever he wants out of the Legislature. So DeSantis has to continue to campaign, and he’s going to use Florida policymaking as a way for him to pitch his proposals and make campaign statements through the policies that he enacts here.”
GOP state legislators are expected to back DeSantis’s proposals. “We’re going to get his agenda across the finish line,” Kathleen Passidomo, the Senate president, said in February.
Here are some of the biggest takeaways from what DeSantis is proposing and their implications for Florida, and how the legislation might reflect his agenda should he enter the 2024 race.
Just minutes before DeSantis addressed the Legislature on Tuesday, state Republicans filed bills to ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. If approved, the legislation will impose further restrictions on abortion access in the state, which in 2022 banned the procedure after 15 weeks, without exceptions for rape or incest.
This proposal, however, does allow for exceptions to save a person’s life or in cases involving rape or incest, with specific conditions. The legislation would restrict any person other than a physician from inducing pregnancy termination and would allow only physicians to provide abortion-inducing drugs in person.
DeSantis has managed a delicate balancing act on the issue of abortion. He touted in his speech that the state of Florida is “proud to be pro-life.” But McDonald noted that the governor is “walking a tightrope” — wanting to appeal enough to the Republican base that he can win the nomination, but not wanting to take such an extreme position that he will alienate general-election voters.
“The largest hot-button issue is abortion in this country at the moment,” McDonald said. “We’ve seen the pro-choice position prevail in places like Kansas and Kentucky, even. So that is a real vulnerable issue for Republicans going into 2024.”
Currently, Florida is the only state in the Southeast that allows abortions up to 15 weeks.
During a press briefing on the same day Republicans filed the bill, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre criticized Republican officials’ “extreme efforts” to curtail abortion access.
“This ban would prevent not just the nearly 4 million Florida women of reproductive age from accessing abortion care after six weeks, but would also impact the nearly 15 million women of reproductive age who live in states across the South with abortion bans and would no longer be able to rely on Florida as an option to access care. We know that these bans are already having a devastating impact on women's health,” Jean-Pierre said.
DeSantis has previously stated that he would welcome such legislation and in February said he would approve a so-called heartbeat bill.
“He did sign a 15-week ban on abortion within Florida,” McDonald said. “But in the State of the State address that he made, he basically tossed it back to the Legislature, saying, ‘I'll do whatever the Legislature sends to me,’ which is not a very authoritative and definitive statement about abortion.”
The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion-rights research group, said in a statement to Yahoo News that the bill has nothing to do with science and “everything to do with politics.”
“Given overlapping logistical hurdles — including potentially long wait times for an appointment and two in-person trips with a 24-hour waiting period as is required in Florida — getting an in-state abortion may be impossible to achieve,” the organization said.
DeSantis has used education as a major springboard for diving into national politics.
“We must continue our momentum with K-to-12 education by increasing teacher salaries, enacting a teachers’ bill of rights, providing paycheck protection for teachers, expanding school choice and fortifying parents' rights. Our schools must deliver a good education, not a political indoctrination,” DeSantis said in Tuesday’s address.
The agenda for this legislative session reflects his remarks, as he seeks to squash the so-called woke agenda.
Among his proposals is a higher education bill, House Bill 999, that would ban public colleges and universities from funding activities that “espouse diversity, equity and inclusion.”
The bill intends to “provide direction to each constituent university on removing from its programs any major or minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems, which is any major or minor that engenders beliefs in the concepts defined.”
DeSantis has touted the proposal as acting in the name of academic freedom and has said the initiatives drain resources and drive up costs. Under his proposal, there would be mandated courses in Western civilization and the protections of tenure would be limited.
“Our student groups and college administrators are starting to become concerned that it means that they will have to eliminate all diversity spending and diversity funding,” Democratic Florida House leader Fentrice Driskell, the founder of How We All Win, told Yahoo News.
“What DeSantis has done is effectively made DE&I a boogeyman … and he’s tried to turn it into a dirty word in Florida. You also look at what he's done with New College, which is based in the Sarasota area, where he took this liberal arts college and has effectively started the process of re-creating it in the image of Hillsdale College, which is a private Christian institution.”
Another aspect of education that DeSantis plans to tackle is expanding school vouchers — a move that the Florida Policy Institute, an independent nonprofit, says could cost $4 billion in the first year alone. Under the voucher expansion, every Florida student from kindergarten to 12th grade would be eligible for vouchers that could be used for private or religious school tuition, private tutoring or other expenses. The proposal would remove income requirements for vouchers and also make vouchers available to homeschooled students.
Currently, Florida has a universal income and disability-based voucher system in which only certain people qualify for vouchers. The income is capped at 375% of the federal poverty level, which is about $112,000 for a family of four.
“We have looked at the cost of that, and if you consider currently enrolled kids who are getting vouchers already, you look at kids in private school who have never been in public education, who are also eligible for these vouchers,” Norín Dollard, senior policy analyst at Florida Policy Institute, told Yahoo News. “If you look at homeschool, which is another new population that would be eligible for these vouchers, all of those things together would reach $4 billion of the state share of just K-through-12 education.”
Critics say the bill would grossly defund public schools and siphon off tax dollars in greater amounts annually with no plans to put money back in to support public schools. Policy experts agree, and say districts that are planning school budgets do not know how many people are going to take the voucher, so they might be operating with fewer state dollars coming in than they anticipate.
“There’s such a thing as a public good,” Dollard said. “We all pay in because we all benefit. So what vouchers do is, it lets parents opt out of public education. We all contribute to public education because we all benefit.”
Florida ranks 48th in the nation for its average teacher pay of $51,009. DeSantis has proposed distributing $200 million more toward increasing teacher pay in 2023.
Under a concealed weapons bill, Republican lawmakers are pushing a proposal to allow people without felony arrests or certain arrests linked to substance abuse to carry a concealed firearm in public without a permit requirement. Supporters are calling it “constitutional carry.”
“We also understand that part of fighting crime is to protect Floridians’ rights to defend themselves,” DeSantis reinforced in his address. “A constitutional right should not require a permission slip from the government. It is time we join 25 other states to enact constitutional carry in the state of Florida.”
Currently, any permit seekers in the state are required to undergo a background check, fingerprinting and a training course, and to fire a firearm in front of an instructor.
“I expect DeSantis is going to play to the base on gun control,” McDonald said. “So I don't expect there to be any major backlash on his overtures to the Republican primary electorate.”
The proposal has drawn sharp criticism from gun-control advocates, and also opposition from some gun-rights groups that want Florida to be an open-carry state.
“We believe that borders matter, and we have fought against illegal immigration in the state of Florida. ... We must further strengthen our laws against illegal immigration by enhancing employment verification, increasing penalties for human smuggling and further disincentivizing illegal migration to the state of Florida. Florida is not a sanctuary state, and we will uphold the rule of law,” DeSantis declared during his address.
One DeSantis proposal would eliminate out-of-state tuition fee waivers for undocumented students. The proposal would repeal a 2014 policy that provided certain high school graduates, most of them Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients or those who are DACA-eligible, with in-state tuition rates to continue higher education as undocumented immigrant students.
“We’re heavily reliant on immigrants for labor, for our higher education enrollment and graduation rates for our STEM graduates, which is a significant goal of our state university and college systems, to have a skilled, strong STEM-educated workforce,” Alexis Tsoukalas, a policy analyst for Florida Policy Institute, told Yahoo News. “The legislation claims that [Florida lawmakers] want to focus on it and it likely would have a much larger appeal. What that is yet we’re still determining.”
DeSantis also wants to expand the use of the E-Verify system, which would require private companies to use the platform to check employee work authorization.
“With this legislation, Florida is continuing to crack down on the smuggling of illegal aliens, stopping municipalities from issuing ID cards to people here illegally, and ensuring that employers are hiring American citizens or those here legally,” DeSantis said in a February news release.
More than 1 in 5 Floridians, or more than 4 million people, are immigrants, according to data from the American Immigration Council. Experts such as Tsoukalas call the proposals “harmful” and warn that the overhaul could leave thousands of immigrants in limbo.
“It's only going to make Florida less welcoming to so many of our residents who make Florida the state that it is,” Tsoukalas said. “We simply would not be Florida without immigrant Floridians. And many of these provisions, because they are so broad and because they target such a wide swath of people — we’re still figuring out the impact.”
Other proposals include making it a third-degree felony to knowingly transport, conceal or harbor an illegal alien within or into the state, which can result in a sentence of up to five years behind bars, with five years of probation and a $5,000 fine. A person can also face a second-degree felony if the migrant is younger than 18 years old, as well as up to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
“A positive bill that Florida should consider that now has a counterpart in both chambers in this session is a bill to allow driver’s licenses for all Florida’s residents, regardless of documentation status,” Tsoukalas suggested. “Numerous other states have done this. They’ve seen reductions in insurance costs, improvements in public safety, and many non-immigrants have actually stood in solidarity and gotten some of these IDs because they increasingly recognize the benefit that immigrants bring.”
Another proposal, H.B. 991, would make it easier to sue for defamation and for the speaker to face huge penalties — which could potentially weaken protections for journalists.
According to the bill, “defamation” or “privacy tort” refers to “libel, slander, false light, invasion of privacy, or any other tort founded upon any single publication, exhibition, or utterance, such as any one edition of a newspaper, book, or magazine, any one presentation to an audience, any one broadcast over radio or television, any one exhibition of a motion picture, or any one publication, exhibition, or utterance on the Internet. Editing any form of media so that it attributes something false or leads a reasonable viewer to believe something false about a plaintiff may give rise to a defamation claim or privacy tort.”
DeSantis, a frequent critic of the media, has called for revisiting the 1964 Supreme Court ruling New York Times v. Sullivan, which provides some protections for reporters from lawsuits. Florida lawmakers are also considering some requirements for journalists who cover politics to sign onto a state registry.
“It makes it much more difficult for you to stand up for your own rights and to hold people accountable who would treat you in a discriminatory manner,” Driskell said. “That’s just wrong. We know that because Ron DeSantis, for example, encourages the type of division that would lead to people getting bullied or picked on because of their gender identity or their sexual orientation. He’s really trying to protect people who would help carry his water on those issues.”
On the heels of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz being sentenced to life in prison, the Florida Senate moved forward with a bill on Monday that could scrap a requirement mandating unanimous jury recommendations before death sentences can be imposed.
Senate Bill 450 would give judges more authority to sentence defendants to death based on the recommendations of eight of 12 jurors. The bill comes after the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that such decisions had to be unanimous.
After Cruz’s trial, DeSantis said he would support the bill, saying that the shooter of the 2018 massacre would not be exonerated.
“He’s guilty. Everyone knew he was guilty from the moment this happened,” DeSantis said at a press conference, according to a local NBC news outlet. Of the 27 states that implement the death penalty, only three do not require a unanimous decision.
“Florida leads the nation in death row exonerations, meaning we’ve gotten it wrong more than anybody,” Driskell said. “If we’re going to sentence someone to death, we have to be right about it. Florida has a track record of getting it wrong.”