'The big issues': Election-year session produces fiery legislation for Floridians

Democrats unable to hold back flood of 'red meat' bills aimed at GOP voting base

Jeffrey Schweers

Some call it "The Mean Season." Or "The Session of Their Discontent."

Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book of Plantation called this legislative session “the worst it’s ever been.”

The culture wars took center stage, splitting lawmakers even more than usual along party lines.

Floor debates about abortion bans and censorship of classroom discussions about sexual orientation became personal for some lawmakers; openly gay Democratic members Carlos G. Smith in the House and Shevrin Jones in the Senate were moved to tears discussing what they and others called the "Don't Say Gay" bill. 

Coverage and commentary on the 2022 Legislative Session:

For Democrats, who claim the poor, the marginalized and disenfranchised as part of their constituency, the session was a bitter pill as the Republican-controlled Legislature passed laws aimed at immigrants, LGBTQ youth and other minorities. 

“I didn't come to this session to be part of divisive cultural wars,” Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, told her colleagues Tuesday while debating the “Don’t Say Gay” bill (HB 1557), formally titled the Parental Rights in Education act.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, noted the time spent on contentious bills this session, saying lawmakers could have spent that time addressing pressing needs like dramatic rent increases, rising property insurance premiums, soaring gas prices and a lack of affordable housing.

“And you all know the calls you get in your office, it’s about real issues — not made-up issues that are meant for political aspirations,” Polsky said.

Still, for conservatives, it was a banner year.

Red-meat bills flew through both chambers aimed directly at scoring points with the Republican base, primed for a November election in which all 120 legislative seats and a U.S. Senate seat are up for grabs, among other races. Several of those bills were right out of the conservative Heritage Foundation's playbook.

Jessica Anderson, executive director of Heritage Action for America, applauded Florida Republicans for protecting parents and children: "Parents have the primary responsibility for their kid’s education and shouldn’t be shut out from the most sensitive of decisions for kids as young as age 5."

Many of those bills also were in line with the goals of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is up for reelection and making like a person gearing up a campaign to run for president in 2024.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the media and community members on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022, during a news conference at CJ Cannon’s restaurant to announce a $750,000 grant for the city of Fellsmere. The money will come from the state’s Rural Infrastructure Fund, and will accommodate new industrial business by extending the sewer systems at the commerce park, DeSantis said.

Democrats despaired that they were wasting time on made-up issues, solutions looking for problems while ignoring real concerns of their constituents. Republicans answered they were taking care of business and doing the people's work. 

For example, the Legislature swept $100 million from the $209 million State Housing Initiative Trust Fund into a program to help "Hometown Heroes" — teachers, nurses, police and firefighters — purchase homes.

On the other hand, the Legislature earmarked $1 billion for a 5.38% pay raise for state workers as well as a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Lawmakers also squeezed out a one-month gas tax reprieve at the last minute, using $200 million in federal stimulus funds to finance the gas relief timed for October, one month before the November elections.

There are hits and misses everywhere this session, said Susan MacManus, a political analyst and distinguished retired professor of political science at the University of South Florida.

Susan MacManus, a distinguished professor emerita at the University of South Florida School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies.

During an election year, the types of policy bills that get usually get noticed are the ones that make most constituents happy, she said, things like building and infrastructure projects and environmental protection.

“The big picture here is that those things are drowned out by national politics. And the big issues have been big issues in every red state with governor and senate races," MacManus said. "The conservative platform is transferable from one state to the next.”

In the final days, there was a mad scramble to get major policy issues across the finish line, leaving the budget unfinished until Thursday afternoon. Legislators expect to pass out a budget on Monday and send it to the governor — three days after the scheduled end of the session. 

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, talks with Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, on the Senate floor Thursday, March 10, 2022.

As usual, there were squabbles and showdowns, and not everyone got everything they wanted. But Senate President Wilton Simpson, the Republican millionaire egg farmer from Trilby who leads the pack in the race for state agriculture commissioner, took a philosophical approach to how the session has played out so far.

Both the Senate and House advocated for dozens of issues that didn't make it across the finish line. "So I don’t think there are wins and losses," Simpson said. "To single out any one thing as a failure is taking the wrong approach.”

And so, with that in mind, what follows is a rundown of what made it across the finish line:

Abortion ban

After years of trying, conservative lawmakers got an abortion restriction bill passed that bans most abortions after 15 weeks. There's an exception for those that put the mother’s life at risk, but even then, it requires the concurrence of two physicians that the woman’s life would be in jeopardy.

There are no exceptions for victims of rape and incest, despite the repeated efforts of Democrats. 

"I never dreamed I'd be here today, not just giving parental notice, but actually being able to save the lives of babies that are past 15 weeks of gestation," Senate bill sponsor Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said. "God is so good."

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, talks with Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, on the Senate floor Thursday, March 10, 2022.

Parents' rights

GOP lawmakers also succeeded in pushing legislation ("Stop WOKE" Act, Parental Rights in Education or "Don't Say Gay") that has the combined effect of curtailing what teachers can say about race, sexual orientation and gender identity, under the guise of parental rights. 

The Republican majority sees it as a triumph for parents to have a say in their children's education; opponents see it as censorship and erasure.

Another bill (HB 7) bans any instruction in school or work that says one race or gender is superior to another or should feel privileged or oppressed or be discriminated against because of their race or gender. It also prohibits any instruction that makes students or workers feel responsible or shame for past historical wrongs because of their race, sex or national origin. The Senate approved it on a 24-15 vote Thursday.

A third bill would give parents a say in the instructional material their kids are exposed to in public schools. Opponents said it could lead to book censorship. An amended version of the bill (HB 1467) passed out of the Legislature Thursday.

“The focus is on kids and the parents of K-12 kids," MacManus said. "People are frustrated they have no control over their kids.”

And an election year is the right time to push those issues, she said: “The best time to bring up cultural issues is during a period like we’re in right now."

Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, listens to debate as he presides over a Senate session Thursday, March 10, 2022.


Another hot-button issue to rally Republican voters around is immigration, a priority for DeSantis too. 

A measure (SB 1808) sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, passed out of the House along party lines by a 77-42 vote. Airlines, bus companies and other transportation companies helping the federal government relocate undocumented immigrants to Florida would be barred from doing business with Florida.

Bean said it is an attempt to protect the state's borders and stop the federal government's "human trafficking." Democrats and human rights organizations said the bill perpetuates a false narrative about immigrants.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat and a candidate for governor, said the bill would put unaccompanied minors seeking asylum at risk and jeopardize Florida's agriculture industry.

Election 'reforms'

One of the biggest items on the governor's wish list is the creation of an election crimes and security task force.

The Legislature has sent a bill (SB 524) to his desk that would create a scaled-down version of what he envisioned that also creates new restrictions on voting by mail and gathering signatures for constitutional amendment petition drives.

It also requires annual voter list maintenance instead of every two years. And it increases the charge of ballot harvesting and tampering with ballots from a misdemeanor to a felony. Opponents worry that it will be used to target third-party voting groups that are involved in voter registration drives.

Sen. Jeff Brandes stands at his desk on the first day of the Florida legislature's 2021 special session on gambling at the Capitol Monday, May 17, 2021.

Government in the Sunshine

It takes a two-thirds majority vote to pass exemptions to Florida’s Sunshine law. Democrats had the votes to stop further erosion of the public records act and open meetings law, but failed to hold the line at least twice, siding with Republicans on several measures to cloak government proceedings.

The most significant one would shield the names and other identifying information of candidates in university president searches. This comes at a time the state is facing as many as five searches for university presidents. 

Four Democrats sided with Republicans on the bill (SB 520) by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-Pinellas Park, to give university president searches a pass. The bill would make confidential all information identifying candidates in a search until a search committee narrowed the list to a few finalists. Only then would the public have 21 days to vet the finalists before the board of trustees makes its choice.

Another big public records exemption would make secret information identifying any person or entity participating in executions. It also would make confidential information about the lethal chemical cocktail used in state executions.

Home rule

The Florida Legislature has been chipping away at home rule — the concept that counties and cities can set their own ordinances on a variety of issues from banning plastic straws to regulating vacation rentals.

But this year lawmakers passed the "preemption bill to end all preemption bills" (SB 620) as a sweeping fix on bad local ordinances the Legislature is forced to fix, as one supporter put it. Florida businesses that see a 15% loss to their bottom line because of a municipal ordinance would be able to sue the city or county government responsible and collect legal fees up to $50,000 if they win their case.

Legal notices

For the better part of a decade, the Legislature and newspapers have been tangling over a requirement to publish legal notices. After striking a deal last year to resolve the issue, the matter was revived this year.

A bill (HB 7049) would undo last year's measure, and give government agencies the option of publishing on a public website instead of in print.

The Senate approved an amended version of the bill 26-13 Thursday and sent it back to the House, which OK'd it later that day. It's set to go to DeSantis.  

Alimony overhaul

Another issue 10 years in the making is alimony reform.

The controversial bill (HB 1796) is headed to the governor's desk after some emotionally charged debate in the Legislature.

The measure would do away with permanent alimony and base maximum payments on the length of the marriage.

Jeffrey Schweers is a capital bureau reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida. Contact Schweers at and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.

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