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Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

As Florida's special session kicks off, Democrats say DeSantis sees it as a campaign opportunity

Exterior of the Florida Capitol building
Tom Flanigan
Florida Democrats are calling the state’s latest special legislative session political gamesmanship.

Florida Democrats are calling the state’s latest special legislative session political gamesmanship.

“This is a game. They make the board. They put out the pieces. They can’t even follow their own rules that they make,” said Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book (D-Plantation).

In a pair of caucus meetings, House and Senate leaders said Gov. Ron DeSantis is using the session as a chance to raise his profile and to push his agenda on culture war issues as he considers a potential 2024 presidential run.

“Florida taxpayer dollars are being used for the Governor to campaign for president,” said Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-Hollywood.)

A slate of topics are scheduled for the special session that kicked off Monday including a proposal to allocate $10-million to expand DeSantis’ migrant relocation program. Rep. Dottie Joseph (D-North Miami) said the governor needs to be held accountable for how those dollars are spent.

“What we are seeing with most of our Republican colleagues is that they don’t really care about accountability and they want to give the governor carte blanche to do whatever it is that he wants to do, regardless of the illegality or the constitutionality or otherwise,” Joseph said.

Joseph plans to file an amendment to get clarity on how the DeSantis administration is spending funding allocated to transport undocumented immigrants, but she’s doubtful the amendment will pass in the GOP dominated legislature.

Lawmakers are also taking up a bill to replace Reedy Creek, a special taxing district created for the Walt Disney company in 1967.

Gov. Ron DeSantis targeted the district last year after the company criticized the so-called Don’t Say Gay law, which limits classroom lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation in younger grades.

DeSantis has said Disney should be treated just like any other company.

“It’s not right to put one company in this special status, so what we are really doing is just doing equal treatment. I think it’s exactly what we said we would do,” DeSantis said.

But Book questions the governor’s motives and worries the push against Disney is having a negative effect on Florida’s tourist economy.

“Disney spoke out about something they didn’t feel was right that the governor was doing, and so he decided to punish them," she said. "It was a punitive punishment, not because it wasn’t working…and again, largest employer, largest driver in our state for revenue is tourism. You’re picking on the biggest, so everybody else is quiet.”

The Reedy Creek bill is expected to include changes such as the governor appointing Reedy Creek board members. When lawmakers decided to eliminate the district last year, Disney warned the move would shift nearly a billion dollars of its bond debt to state taxpayers.

Democrats are also attacking a proposal they say targets voters by adding powers to the Office of Statewide Prosecution to investigate voting.

Sen. Tracie Davis (D-Jacksonville), who served as the deputy supervisor of the Duval County Supervisor of Elections, says the bill aims to discourage people from voting.

“The supervisors have said it over and over: There is no fraud. And to be sitting here, dealing again with another swipe at these supervisors -- it’s utterly offensive. And it’s simply a fear tactic for our communities -- and that’s what it is,” Davis said.

More than 20 previously incarcerated people were charged last year with voting illegally in Florida. Several of those cases have been dismissed after lawyers argued their clients could not be charged by a statewide prosecutor because the clients had voted in only one place but a statewide prosecutor’s jurisdiction requires a crime to be committed across judicial districts. Republican leaders say they plan to “clarify” that jurisdiction during the special session.

Many of those charged with voting illegally in 2020 said they thought they were eligible to vote because the state had given them a voting card.

Copyright 2023 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.
Margie Menzel