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The top issues of the 2023 Florida legislative session

Craig Moore
WFSU Public Media

School Vouchers: Florida’s effort to expand learning options for low-income families began 25 years ago under former Gov. Jeb Bush. Now, the state is poised to take school choice to a level long-sought by choice supporters—allowing school-aged kids in the state to become eligible for education savings accounts. These are funds that can be used for private school tuition, home school or other education-related expenses. Critics worry the cost of the program will further erode public schools because in Florida, money follows the student, and when they leave, so does their funding. Sen. Corey Simon (R-Tallahassee) says the effort is about supporting “students, not systems,” and that all families should get a fair shot at a choice. But a big question still looms—how much will this expansion cost Florida taxpayers? A House estimate puts the cost at about $210 million while an outside group says $4 billion.

Permit-less Carry: For years, Second Amendment supporters have pushed for the state to loosen its restrictions on carrying guns. Last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican leaders told supporters that “constitutional carry,” which means allowing the open carrying of guns without a permit, would be forthcoming. But now, some 2A advocates say they’ve been lied to, under a proposal that would allow lawful gun owners to carry their weapons concealed without a permit. 2A backers say concealed permit-less carry is far short of what they were promised. Meanwhile, gun violence prevention groups worry reducing restrictions on gun ownership will lead to more gun violence, while supporters argue people have the right to defend themselves with the least amount of red tape, possible.

Affordable Housing: Many Floridians are rapidly getting priced out of their paradise amid an influx of new residents to the state, a spike in rental and home rates, and a series of natural disasters that have lowered housing stock. After years of growing calls for lawmakers to do more to expand affordable housing in the state, the legislature finally appears ready to do so. A proposal by Senate President Kathleen Passidomo would expedite the permitting process, put more money into key programs like SHIP and SAIL, encourage renovation of older properties focused on mixed use and urban-infill, and offer more sales tax exemptions to businesses that offer workforce housing. Also being floated: a plan to swap monthly fees for security deposits.

Term Limits and partisan local races: Supporters say requiring candidates to disclose their party affiliation and applying term limits to more races will result in greater governmental transparency at the local level, since many local candidates are already being supported by parties, anyway Opponents argue it’ll inject politics into typically a-political issues.

Woke Investing: Republicans are targeting so-called “woke” investments and say such policies have no place in business. The proposal would ban state and local governments from using factors such as “Environmental, Social and Governmental” considerations to make investment and financial decisions. ESG, or socially-responsible investing, is a practice meant to align business decisions with values; however, it’s gained backlash within the past two years with critics who say it misses the point—that the purpose of investing and banking is to get the best deals and make money. Anything outside of that, say those critics, is pointless.

Anti-woke Higher Ed: Measures banning certain majors and minors, and barring funding for certain types of teaching have been unveiled in the legislature as part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ongoing efforts to curb progressive ideologies in higher education. The move is part of his plans to crack down on so-called “woke ideology” and to reform the state’s higher education institutions to refocus more on merit, and less on equity, and similar themes. The moves come after years of conservative arguments that public colleges and universities discriminate against conservative thinkers and, in an effort to appeal to more people, have caved into ideas that defeat the purpose of higher ed.

Social Media and Minors: A bipartisan consensus is emerging that lawmakers should do SOMETHING to combat the harmful effects of social media among young users. Recent studies have shown children and teens are at risk for dangerous behaviors and even suicide given the influence of such platforms and the content kids are being exposed to. There are bills to require social media companies to disclose their algorithms and outline the steps they’re taking to protect young users; there are plans to restrict the use of social media in schools and proposals that would ban TikTok on certain, government-owned wifi. It comes as social media companies are under more scrutiny than ever before, but a major question remains: are such potential policies, enforceable at the state level?

Media Defamation: A measure to cancel journalists may have far broader implications if Florida lawmakers move forward on it in its present filed. As originally filed, but later withdrawn, the measure explicitly stated it was intended to attack the New York Times vs. Sullivan ruling which is widely held as setting the standard for protecting today’s public debate and discourse. NYT vs. Sullivan limited frivolous lawsuits and protected journalists from being sued over unintentional mistakes. That ruling required public figures to prove an outlet had acted with “actual malice” when challenging stories. The bill in Florida would eliminate the actual malice standard, and it goes further; it could allow anyone (reporters, commentators or just regular folks) to sue anyone over any statements published in print, broadcast or the internet, for something they disagree with, even IF those claims are true, but still paint the subject negatively and aren’t directly related to their official duties. Furthermore, the measure would prevent anyone from making claims about racism, bigotry and discrimination against a subject if those positions are part of that person’s scientific or religious beliefs.

Budget: Florida lawmakers really have only one job to do each year; pass a balanced budget. But in recent years, that’s proven to be tricky, even with Republican majorities. This year, the state is flush with cash, and there are lots of competing ideas on where, and how to spend it. Can lawmakers reach a deal among themselves this year so that the 2023 regular legislative session can end on time? They’re going to try.

Immigration: Gov. Ron DeSantis will try again to require all businesses in the state to verify an employees immigration status using the E-Verify system. Right now, only the state government uses it. Similar bills have been floated and failed before due to pushback from business lobbying groups. The governor is also looking to repeal a state law that granted in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as minors. These “dreamers” received the tuition benefit during the Rick Scott administration, and Scott has defended the program as something he would support all over again.

Local Government Ordinances: Efforts to curb local rules that have the potential to hurt businesses is again up for debate this year. A similar measure that would have allowed businesses to sue over local ordinances passed the senate last year but failed in the House. This year’s measure would require local governments to stop enforcing an ordinance if it’s challenged in court. Plaintiffs, if successful in their lawsuits, could receive attorney fees and recoup court costs.
Copyright 2023 WFSU.

Lynn Hatter has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative.
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