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Florida’s 2022 session was highly partisan says political scientist

Visitors walk in front of the Capitol during a special legislative session targeting COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Rebecca Blackwell
Visitors walk in front of the Capitol during a special legislative session targeting COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.

Members of the Florida Legislature returned home last week, after closing out the 2022 regular session. While many dub the session a good one, others are not so sure.

State lawmakers passed a record $112.1 billion budget just before “sine die,” ended a session dominated by fierce debates over issues such as education, abortion, redistricting and immigration.

“Highly contentious, and one that in the end I think is satisfying nobody on either side; there was definitely a focus on what your base wanted,” said Charles Zelden, a political scientist at Nova Southeastern University. “And since the Republicans were the ones who control the legislature, their base got as much as they could get through.”

Zelden adds that in many ways, it was also a part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reelection bid this year, and a possible White House run in ’24.

“Without a doubt, this was focused on what was going to play well — not just to the Florida voters in ’22, but what will play well to the national Republican primary voters in a little over two years,” he said.

It’s a given that a legislative session will have a certain amount of contention, and 2022 was no exception. Zelden says just how much head-butting depends on who’s butting and who’s getting butted over what.

“It depends on your perspective. Anytime you’re going to take on abortion there’s going to be high contention,” Zelden said. “And there’s going to be a lot of frustration and anger, and yelling and screaming, and the abortion situation proved that to be true.”

The new law bans abortions after 15 weeks, and is similar to a Mississippi law that’s now before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Florida statute, like Mississippi’s, does not have exceptions for rape or incest. Historically that’s led to rejections of such laws, but Zelden’s not so sure with court’s conservative majority.

“Remember, in the end the one court that can overturn the Supreme Court is the Supreme Court itself,” said Zelden. “And as the number of justices and who the justices are change, so too will be the interpretation of the justices about what the constitution requires.”

The new Florida abortion law, however, does allow the procedure if two physicians certify in writing that the health of the mother is in danger.

“We’re giving 15 weeks as a state. The U.S. Supreme Court, I believe, hasn’t yet but I believe they will uphold that,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson. “And so there are all options on the table until 15 weeks; under certain circumstances, after 15 weeks, there’s still options.”

Another high-profile measure was a change in how student performance in public schools is gauged. The Florida Standards Assessments, FSA, is being replaced with grading throughout the school year beginning in 2024. It’s one of Gov. DeSantis’ pet measures.

“It really does give the parents more of an ability to help their kids’ education; there’s not much you can do if you get the results after the school year ends, and you’re over on summer vacation,” the governor said. “But if you get results two weeks after an assessment, then you can go in, talk to the teacher, talk to your kid.”

Nova Southeastern’s Charles Zelden says for now, the jury is still out on the new education plan.

“Yes, there’s a lot of changes, up to and including a change in terms of end-of-year testing, which I think there’s a lot of support for that on both sides of the aisle,” said Zelden. “But what you replace it with would be, of course, the most important thing. And that’s the part that’s still kind of open.”

As is tradition, the legislature meets in January during a state election year, instead of the usual March-to-May schedule. Zelden calls the session a decided effort on the part of the Republicans to garner as many votes as possible from supporters.

“This was a ‘drive out the vote’ legislative session; if you want to call it pandering, or not, is another matter. But they were definitely playing to their base,” Zelden said. “And the bet that the Republicans have made is that by doing this, they’ll get enough voters to counteract any potential lost voters in the middle.”

That said, the Democrats, Zelden expects, would come out and proclaim the GOP legislation is bad. But can that be a winning strategy?

“Sadly, in Florida,” said Zelden. “Not in terms of the legislature; but it might have an impact in terms of the governor’s race or the senate race. There, the Democrats always have a chance. The numbers that will separate out the victor from the loser will probably be within a few thousand, or 10,000, votes.”

Zelden points to the way the state’s districts are gerrymandered — that even a high Democratic turnout at the polls — it remains unlikely to change the partisan breakdown of the legislature.