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Desantis: Five things to watch during this legislative sessionDeSantis, Florida's governor running for reelection, is focused on what he wants from the GOP-dominated Legislature during this election-year-session.Ginny Beagan, Wochit

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers open the two-month legislative session Tuesday ready to spend from a state treasury brimming with budget cash while advancing a host of ideas heavily shaded by election-year politics.

Republicans are in command of the Legislature. And Gov. Ron DeSantis has their unswerving loyalty.

So what the governor wants, he’s likely to get as he also prepares to go before voters in November, seeking a second term as Florida’s chief executive.

“We’ve had so much success in the past few years, this session it’s just continuing on with what we’ve been doing,” said Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who doubles as the state’s Republican Party chairman. “In terms of the budget, the state’s doing super well.”

But Democrats, vastly outnumbered in the House and Senate, argue the state’s Republicans are out of touch with the needs of many working Floridians struggling to deal with an economy roiled by two years of COVID-19 and the latest spike in cases.

GOP priorities don’t address paycheck, tax and housing inequities that have long coursed through Florida, but have worsened in the pandemic, they said.

“Gov. DeSantis has an intense amount of control over these legislators,” said House Democratic Leader Evan Jenne of Dania Beach. “Whatever he wants, he will not find it difficult in this House to find 78 Republicans to jump up and say they’ll run it for him. But look at what he sees as priorities.”

DeSantis has laid out an agenda that sprinkles pay raises across teachers, first responders and state employees — using a bounty of state cash enhanced by $3.4 billion from the American Rescue Plan, COVID-19 relief handed down to states by President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats.

But DeSantis also will bite the hand that helps feed Florida’s cash flow.

Under the governor, the state has sued the White House four times, over immigration and vaccine policies, even as the $1,000 bonuses for teachers and first responders he’s proposing are financed by those Biden bucks.

Also, $1 billion of that federal cash would go toward another DeSantis item he wants lawmakers to approve this session — a 25-cents-a-gallon cut in the state’s gas tax, effective in July and spanning the next five months.

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Not done with spending Washington money, the governor would finance a $500 million Resilient Florida grant program with it, helping cities and counties rebuild infrastructure failing or flooded by the state’s ignoring years of the deepening effects of climate change.

No ‘thank you’ note

But don’t expect DeSantis to send a thank-you note to the White House and congressional Democrats, even though the federal aid swelling state coffers was approved over opposition from every Republican in the U.S. House and Senate.

Along with the ongoing state lawsuits against the Biden administration, DeSantis wants state lawmakers to approve new penalties on contractors and companies that assist the Biden administration in relocating migrants from the Texas-Mexico border.

The governor declared it part of the “fight against the Biden border crisis.”

While crafting a budget for next year doesn’t look like a problem for lawmakers, they’re also poised to take up measures that may include a fresh round of abortion restrictions, more limits on local governments and a new law enforcement arm directed at elections crimes.

Plenty of fireworks could emerge from these debates.

An emerging election year also will draw the focus of lawmakers.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, is a statewide candidate for the Cabinet post of Agriculture Commissioner, Miami Democratic Sen. Annette Taddeo is among three prominent Democrats challenging DeSantis, and campaign season will be on the minds of most in the Legislature.

Backed by a seemingly limitless ability to raise campaign cash, DeSantis also is viewed as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024. And while he’s polarizing for many Florida Democrats, it’s clear the governor knows how to push political buttons that bring him national attention as his re-election campaign takes shape.

Still, just as the governor is pressuring the White House with policy proposals that may help his political future, state lawmakers will be attentive to their own careers this session.

Redistricting dominates

Once-a-decade redistricting is underway and is certain to distract during this session. The task of reshaping state House, Senate and congressional districts to reflect population changes reflected in the latest U.S. Census will dominate much of this year’s session.

It’s likely that the final new maps won’t be approved until near the session’s scheduled March 11 finish. So that will keep lawmakers conducting the day-to-day business of session with one eye on how the contours of their districts — or ones they hope to run in — may change.

“I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of food fights,” Gruters said, explaining that lawmakers are looking to complete session smoothly, and hit the campaign trail soon.

Jenne said redistricting could overwhelm the session.

He said lawmakers’ attention on redistricting will likely overtake efforts to tackle other complex issues. Rising property insurance rates and the future of personal injury protection coverage for motorists are topics often talked about needing a fix. But legislative bandwidth may not stretch that far this year.

“I think redistricting is taking all the oxygen out of the room,” Jenne said.

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Redistricting, in fall committee hearings, also has proven tense. Several proposed maps have emerged from the House and Senate, which largely maintain the state’s current political balance already favoring Republicans, the party guiding redistricting.

But Republicans appear intent on avoiding protracted legal challenges to the maps they propose. As a result, GOP leaders have been seeking to downplay talk of which party could gain or lose seats, based on the line-drawing.

Florida’s constitution prohibits district boundaries from being drawn intentionally to help or hurt a party or an incumbent lawmaker. Still, rivalries could emerge this session among legislators, even within the same party, when the line-drawing places two incumbents in the same district, dramatically reshapes an existing district, or threatens those running for higher office.

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Cities, counties again targets

Like Democrats, cities and counties also have been targeted by DeSantis and the Republican-led Legislature over mask and vaccine policies. And more limits could be coming this session.

 A special session in November resulted in measures banning mandatory vaccines in the workplace and eliminating vaccine or mask requirements for schools and governments in Florida — although some legal challenges remain.

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This year, cities and counties are wary of legislation that would allow them to be sued if a local ordinance caused a business to lose at least 15% of its revenue, or profit.

Governments fear the approach could lead to costly lawsuits, whenever a measure is enacted that hurts a single business. The measure would put the power to stop action in the hands of a lone entity, critics say.

“It’s not a policy founded in democratic principles,” said Cragin Mosteller, spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties.

Abortion politics also could divide this session. Many Florida Republicans are seeking to enact legislation similar to laws in Texas and Mississippi, which dramatically reduce the number of weeks into a pregnancy an abortion could take place.

But a challenge to the Mississippi law is awaiting a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that is not expected until June. While Florida lawmakers may see the benefit of waiting for the court’s guidance before acting, some predict that legislation is likely to emerge.

“I suspect something will happen,” said Rep. Scott Plakon, R- Longwood. “But I don’t know what it’s going to look like right now.”

And while Florida lawmakers often try to avoid making changes to election laws during an election year, 2022 looks like it will be different.

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Election force worries some

DeSantis wants the Legislature to approve creation of a $5.7 million, 52-person Election Crimes and Security investigative force within the Florida Department of State.

The law enforcement expansion for campaign-related wrongdoing worries many election experts and voters’ organizations, with some fearing it could be used to harass groups opposing the governor’s policies.

Others say it will muddy existing lines of authority for investigating alleged election crimes.

DeSantis has praised the state’s election performance in 2020. But he has never dismissed President Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that vote fraud in a host of states cost him the White House. 

The governor said the investigative unit is needed.

“I guarantee you this, the first person that gets caught – no one’s going to want to do it after that, because they know there’s going to be enforcement,” DeSantis said.

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport

Source : https://www.heraldtribune.com/story/news/politics/state/2022/01/05/florida-election-year-legislative-session-means-desantis-policy-shares-stage-politics/6496650001/

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