TALLAHASSEE, FL.- This week marked the mid-point of the 2022 legislative session, bringing with it a major development in Florida’s once-a-decade redistricting.
The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday denied a request by Gov. Ron DeSantis for an advisory opinion about his proposal to revamp a sprawling North Florida congressional district that has been held by a Black Democrat.
The district, which stretches from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee, is held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Fla. DeSantis proposed making District 5 more compact and so that it would not stretch across the region. He also has pitched redrawing a congressional district in the Orlando area that is represented by Val Demings, who also is a Black Democrat.
In a five-page order, the Supreme Court said it “respectfully” denied DeSantis’ request. It said advisory opinions to the governor are typically limited to narrow questions and described DeSantis’ request as “broad” and containing “multiple questions that implicate complex federal and state constitutional matters and precedents interpreting the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
But DeSantis on Friday said his position on the constitutionality of the minority-access North Florida seat hasn’t changed.
“The court declined to take that up but acknowledged that these are, you know, really live issues and are unsettled,” DeSantis said.
The court’s decision “is not changing my position at all,” he added.
“I mean, we will not be signing any congressional map that has an unconstitutional gerrymander in it. And that is going to be the position that we stick to. So, just take that to the bank,” the governor said.
The House put its redrawing of the congressional map on hold while the court considered DeSantis’ request. Following Thursday’s ruling, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said the House will “unpause” its map-making and that the Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee will reconvene next week.
Sprowls also said he expects to maintain District 5 close to its current layout.
“In the absence of that (Supreme Court) guidance, in the absence of legal precedent, we are going to operate, we are going to follow the law,” Sprowls said. “I think you can probably anticipate that North Florida district that was in the previous House map will be similar or the same.”
The Senate has passed a congressional map that generally would keep the current design of District 5, which was drawn in the past to help elect a minority candidate.
Ultimately, the House and Senate will have to agree on a congressional map, which then will go to DeSantis, who has veto power.
ON THE DESK
The first bills of the 2022 legislative session to land on DeSantis’ desk would give the governor a ready pool of cash to dip into when he declares emergencies.
The House on Thursday overwhelmingly passed two linked proposals (SB 96 and SB 98) that would set up the fund. The Senate passed the measures last month.
A signature from the governor’s Sharpie would create a $500 million “Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund” that DeSantis could directly access.
DeSantis last year pitched the fund as “an additional layer of reserve” to keep from having to dip into state general revenue.
But during debate on the House floor this week, critics questioned the need for the fund.
“And though there are so many operational challenges and challenges in just managing people and managing stakeholders (during emergencies), I haven’t heard that finances was a problem,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said. “And I do feel like $500 million is just a lot of money to give in a flexible manner to the executive branch.”
Republican supporters of the fund said that the bill would place “guardrails” on state dollars. The governor already can tap other sources of state money, including a reserve known as the Budget Stabilization Fund, after declaring emergencies.
“Right now, the governor slush fund is the state treasury,” House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, argued.
Lawmakers approved a similar proposal last year, but DeSantis vetoed it after questions were raised about seeding the fund with federal stimulus dollars. This year’s proposal would use state general revenue.
ON THE CUSP
The House and Senate this week passed separate education measures that have failed to gain traction in the past but now are inches away from the finish line, if the chambers can iron out key differences.
The Senate on Thursday passed a long-debated bill that would shield information about applicants vying to lead state colleges and universities.
The proposal (SB 520) would keep confidential names and other information about applicants for state college and university presidencies, though information about finalists would be released near the end of searches.
The measure was approved by senators in a 28-11 vote, after a substantial change was made Thursday.
That change would require that the age, gender and race of all applicants “who met the minimum qualifications” for the job be revealed at the time finalists are disclosed. The Senate measure would require that the identities of finalists be made public at least 21 days before presidents are chosen.
A similar House bill (HB 703) needs approval from the House Education & Employment Committee before it could be considered by the full chamber.
But the House version of the bill has a key difference from the Senate measure. The House would provide a 14-day window in which finalists’ information would be made public before selections are made, a week shorter than the Senate’s proposed 21-day period.
Senate bill sponsor Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, pledged to senators Thursday that he intends to “stand firm” on the Senate bill’s 21-day window.
In another proposal lawmakers have contemplated in previous legislative sessions, the House on Thursday signed off on a measure that would impose term limits on school board members.
The Republican-controlled House voted 78-40 along almost straight party lines to approve a bill (HB 1467) that would place eight-year term limits on school board members.
The wide-ranging measure, which is among the most controversial education bills this session, also is aimed at increasing scrutiny of school library books and instructional materials.
A similar Senate bill (SB 1300) does not include a provision that would cap school board members’ terms. The Senate proposal instead would set school board members’ salaries the same as state lawmakers. Lawmakers make $29,697 per year.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Lawmakers this week passed two linked proposals (SB 96 and SB 98) that would create a $500 million “Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund” that the governor could directly access during emergencies.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The reality is, I have a concern about the gas tax as it relates to out-of-state visitors. I think that our best estimate is hundreds of millions of dollars of that gas tax (break) would go to people who don’t live in the state.” — House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, referring to a push by Gov. Ron DeSantis to suspend the state’s gas tax for five months this summer and fall.