With a Republican majority in the Legislature, Gov. Ron DeSantis pulled the 2019 regular session sharply to the right, keeping his party in line behind a red-meat conservative agenda that included a hard-line new immigration law and measures favoring big business.
“They seemingly gave him everything he asked for,” said House Democratic state Rep. Evan Jenne of Broward County. “The way this building is set up, if he’s got the Republicans on board, that’s it – it’s going to pass. His struggle and his fight was going to be with them, no matter what it was.”
“The governor really pressured Republican lawmakers, in particular, who were on the fence on the sanctuary-family separation bill,” said Democratic House member Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orange County. “I think he realized that one of his top campaign promises was in trouble – and it was.
“You had a lot of Republicans in the Senate who were on the fence, who didn’t want to go along with hard-line anti-immigrant legislation in a state that has a history of welcoming immigrants. But it turns out they caved, and the Republicans he needed to advance it did.”
Republican state Rep. Jamie Grant of the Tampa Bay area was reluctant to acknowledge that bills got through solely because DeSantis pushed for them.
“That’s proving a negative. I don’t know how you do that,” he said.
Still, Grant said, the governor’s intervention helped the so-called “sanctuary cities” bill (that gives DeSantis the power to sanction local officials if they don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities) as it bounced between the House and the Senate as the session wound down.
“I don’t think you would have seen three bounces without an engaged governor who said, ‘Hey we need this,’” Grant said.
By the time the session – the first for DeSantis – gavelled to a close Saturday afternoon, long sought-after conservative priorities were headed to the governor’s desk, including arming teachers in school classrooms; expanding publicly funded vouchers to send more students to private schools using tax dollars; and to restrict local government rights and foist new, mandated costs onto locals. The Legislature also erected barriers for felons seeking the right to vote under last year’s Amendment 4, and passed DeSantis’ plan to explore importing prescription drugs from Canada.
A former Congressman, DeSantis employed a charm offensive, inviting the entire Legislature to the governor’s mansion at the beginning of the session. He favored individual members with invitations to dinner or short get-to-know you sessions in his office. He asked members of both parties to attend photo-ops scheduled within their districts. And he invited two Democrats to participate in his and the Cabinet’s planned trip to Israel May 25.
His official schedule shows that he also met with billionaires and corporate executives before and during the legislative session.
DeSantis’ legislative liaison team, including legislative affairs director Stephanie Kopelousos and budget policy director Chris Spenser, proved effective advocates, according to legislators from both parties.
“I made some remarks in a committee meeting. The next thing I knew, I had a bunch of Cabinet secretaries coming to see me,” said Rep. Joe Geller, a Democrat who represents voters in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
“They’re engaged, which is a step forward from the previous administration, which had no interest in talking to Democrats – or Republicans for that matter – whatsoever,” said Rep. Smith of Orange County.
“I’m learning him like he’s learning us,” said Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, who represents the Ocala area. “He’s very decisive and his door’s open.”
Rep. Jenne figures the honeymoon between the Legislature and the new governor can’t last forever. In fact, DeSantis joked following adjournment that he’d apply his line item veto power against the Legislature’s $91.1 billion state budget. “It’s going to be under $91 [billion] when I get through the budget, don’t worry about that,” he said to somewhat nervous laughter.
“There’s going to a point where push comes to shove,” Jenne said. “That’s up to them. We have no input on how they get along. But it’s something to watch, because he’s going to have to start being a little bit of a heavy at times. Right now, he’s popular. But that can change very quickly.”