Florida GOP hands DeSantis wins on Disney, migrants ahead of likely ’24 bid

During a five-day special legislative session that concluded Friday, the Republican-dominated House and Senate approved seven bills, including high-priority measures.

Paul Renner

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Republicans in Florida gave Gov. Ron DeSantis everything he sought before a likely 2024 presidential bid.

During a five-day special legislative session that concluded Friday, the Republican-dominated House and Senate approved seven bills, including high-priority measures that would expand his controversial migrant transport program, give Florida more control over Disney World and strengthen prosecutorial power over voting violations. Each of the measures builds on previously approved laws that left issues unresolved or faced legal hurdles.

Taken together, the bills give DeSantis a list of wins that he can spotlight to conservative voters across the country if he jumps into the 2024 presidential race.

“The reality is we have a governor setting up a presidential bid, and this is basically his attempt to get earned media time on Fox News,” Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) said during Friday floor debate opposing a special session bill that would expand a DeSantis-championed migrant flight program.

Republican legislative leaders convened the special session at DeSantis’ urging but downplayed suggestions that they were reluctantly pushed into it by the governor. Yet they couldn’t answer basic questions about the bills before the Legislature approved the measures.

“You guys are making inquiries, and I look forward to talking about it. But I think the governor is on the right path,” Speaker Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast) told reporters Friday when asked how the state spent millions on the migrant flight program.

The migrant proposal approved by lawmakers expands the controversial program that DeSantis used to fly nearly 50 mostly Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in September. The new bill allows the state to spend money to move migrants from anywhere in the U.S., not just those currently in Florida. A Democratic state lawmaker, Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-Miami), sued DeSantis last year, claiming that the $12 million previously earmarked for the program only allowed the state to transport migrants who were in Florida.

Yet questions remain over how the state spent millions of dollars that lawmakers previously appropriated for the migrant transport program. In September, DeSantis paid an outside vendor — which was a former legal client of the governor’s public safety czar, Larry Keefe — to fly migrants to Massachusetts. Florida paid at least $1.5 million to arrange several sets of flights from Texas to Democratic strongholds in September, but it later approved a further $1.9 million in payments in October that the governor’s office has not yet publicly explained.

Public records also later showed that Keefe used a private email account that made it appear as if the messages were from “Clarice Starling,” the protagonist from the “Silence of The Lambs,” when coordinating the program.

Renner said he couldn’t answer questions about whether it was appropriate for DeSantis administration staffers to use private emails that disguise their true identity because he was not familiar enough with the Keefe emails.

During a Wednesday news conference, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) said it was “above my pay grade, or a different pay grade I guess I should say” when asked about specifics of the program. She directed some questions to Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie, who will be in charge of the migrant flight program under the special session bill given final passage Friday.

During a lengthy Wednesday hearing in the Senate, Pizzo grilled the bill sponsor, state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia (R-Spring Hill), about his proposal, but Ingoglia repeatedly said he couldn’t comment on the program because of pending litigation.

Lawmakers this week were also unable to answer questions about a measure lawmakers approved that allows a statewide prosecutor to charge individuals with election-related crimes. The change came about after the DeSantis-created Office of Election Crimes and Security highlighted last August the arrest of 20 people for allegedly illegally voting in the 2020 election because they had previous convictions for serious crimes like murder.

Those arrests, however, have come under scrutiny after POLITICO and other outlets reported that the defendants were told by state and local election officials that they were allowed to cast ballots. Judges tossed the charges against three defendants in part because the Office of Statewide Prosecution does not have jurisdiction in the election fraud cases. The bill lawmakers approved now clarifies that the office has authority to file such charges.

Yet lawmakers approved the changes to the office without knowing if it would retroactively apply to the defendants who had already been charged by the Office of Statewide Prosecution.

“I can’t answer that,” Passidomo said during her Wednesday press conference. “I would generally say these bills are not retroactive.”

Renner on Friday said he also was not sure, but thought the bill could be retroactive. He said regardless, the bill was needed because DeSantis’ new office racked up early losses in court.

“These new rules will be hashed out in the courts, and the courts will make the determination as to what may or may not apply retroactively,” he said. “What we are doing here is to make sure the jurisdictional issue is solved. There are some cases that went the other way, and so we want to make sure we have the ability to do what we always do, make it easy to vote, and hard to cheat.”

Lawmakers this week also approved a bill giving Florida and DeSantis more control over the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which has given Disney World the right of self-governance at its Orlando-based theme park for more than five decades. Lawmakers last year stripped Disney World of its self-governing status after top Disney officials publicly criticized Florida’s law that bans teachers from leading classroom instructions on sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms from kindergarten through third grade. The law is widely known as “Don’t Say Gay.”

Legislators renamed the district, took away some little-used powers and gave DeSantis more authority over the company by creating a five-person oversight board he will appoint.

The week before the session began, DeSantis publicly pushed lawmakers to convene in Tallahassee to approve the Disney bill and hinted at other unspecified priorities. Lawmakers were quietly concerned the session was being called too soon and a Disney-focused bill was not yet ready. Legislators filed the Disney bill last and needed to amend it, adding to the sense that the special session was being hurried.

“This legislation was not rushed at all, like has been reported,” Fred Hawkins, the St. Cloud Republican who sponsored the bill, said Friday, acknowledging the open perception lawmakers had to hurry the bill. “This was thought out, that’s why the bill was so large.”

Republican legislative leaders also defended their decision to call a sixth legislative session in less than a year to help fix DeSantis’ previously passed priorities. The governor or legislative leader called two special sessions in 2021 and four in 2022.

“I think we frequently have special sessions,” Renner said Friday. “As I said, we do not wait around to fix problems and each of these bills in my mind had some time sensitivity to it.”