Here’s what you need to know about the official 2023 Legislative Session and the special session.
Hate & Extremism
No one could have been prepared for the hateful and vitriolic attacks on LGBTQ+ Floridians in the 2023 legislative session.
SPLC Action Fund offered public testimony and worked along with allies to undermine or minimize the impact of these bills. Still, the harm from the bills will overshadow any slight improvement. In all, the Florida Legislature passed numerous anti-LGBTQ+ bills, including bills that would:
- Erase transgender people by codifying cisgender heterosexual behavior in statute. (SB 254)
- Eradicate gender-affirming care for minors, including allowing the state to take custody of Florida children potentially subject to this type of care in other states and creating crimes for doctors who prescribe or perform such care. (SB 254)
- Ban and penalize venues, restaurants and localities from admitting children (even children accompanied by parents) to certain types of performances or parades, including any drag show or parade seen as sexually explicit or appealing to a prurient or shameful interest. (HB 1438)
- Allow doctors to discriminate against their patients based on medical conscience. (SB 1580)
- Force transgender people to use the restroom that matches their genitalia, despite outward appearance and personal gender identification. (HB 1521)
Lawmakers also proposed a bill that would expand on the "Don't Say Gay" bill from 2022. SB 1320/HB 1069 - Child Protection in Public Schools. This legislation would expand the 2022 bill to include prohibitions on teaching anything on sexual identity or sexuality from K-3 to pre-K-8 and defined "sex" as male or female and mandates how and when a student, faculty, staff or contracted vendors can use certain pronouns. SPLC AF collaborated with education advocates and allies in the LGBTQ rights movement to prepare talking points and questions. The final version of HB 1069 will:
- Expand the controversial "Don't Say Gay" legislation from 2022 to include pre-K-8 and include Charter Schools. (HB 1069)
- Define "sex" as a male or female based on reproductive role, as based on chromosomes, naturally occurring sex hormones, and external genitalia present at birth. (HB 1069)
- Prevent educators from inquiring about a person's preferred pronouns. (HB 1069)
- Prohibit faculty, staff and school board-contracted vendors from using their preferred pronouns with students if those pronouns do not match their sex as defined in the bill. (HB 1069)
- Allow residents to challenge any book found in a school library or teacher library. (HB 1069)
The 2023 session saw the most aggressive attack to date on undocumented immigrants (and immigrants in general). This year's bill (SB 1718/HB 1617) was a nightmare for undocumented immigrants, immigrant families of mixed status, and friends of immigrants or those in immigrant neighborhoods.
Despite our best efforts, the bill passed in the final week of session, but not without key amendments from the bill sponsors that weakened some egregious bill sections – including the heinous human-smuggling provision and the section related to E-Verify and employment. Weakening one of the governor's priority bills is a win in 2023.
By the end of session, the legislature had passed anti-immigrant legislation that would:
- Prohibit public funds for local community ID card programs. (SB 1718)
- Invalidate out-of-state driver's licenses issued to certain types of immigrants. (SB 1718)
- Collect data from patients related to their immigration status. (SB 1718)
- Conflate anti-terrorism efforts and immigration in Florida statute; (SB 1718)
- Disallow DACA recipients' eligibility to become attorneys. (SB 1718)
- Add restrictions on employers and mandate the use of E-Verify in certain situations. (SB 1718)
- Create harsh penalties related to human smuggling and racketeering. (SB 1718)
- Expand and evolve the so-called “Martha's Vineyard Flights.” (SB 6B)
- Appropriate $12 million more for the controversial “Unauthorized Alien Transport Program” (Martha's Vineyard flight program). (SB 1718)
- Discriminate against Chinese citizens who want to buy certain lands in the U.S. (SB 264)
On a positive note, SPLC AF helped defeat a bill (SB 1096/HB 1607) that would have banned removing a monument or memorial of a person with state public service or military history, including Confederate statues. SPLC AF helped kill four bills related to fighting hate and extremism, including bills that would:
- Prevent the removal of memorials or monuments that no longer serve a community (Confederate statues). (SB 1096/HB 1607)
- Increase penalties for anyone guilty of damaging a monument or memorial they may find offensive. (SB 1096/HB 1607)
- Prohibit the flying of celebratory flags like Pride flags or Black Lives Matter flags on state or local government buildings. (SB 668/HB 1011)
Decarceration & Decriminalization
While fentanyl and fentanyl analogue abuse and addiction is a growing crisis across the U.S., Florida lawmakers from both parties, unfortunately, see this more as a criminal problem rather than a public health problem. Gov. Ron DeSantis and his acolytes fueled this mischaracterization by blaming the fentanyl crisis on “illegal immigrants” and the failed border policies of President Joe Biden.
Many partisan and moderate policy analysts and think tanks likened mandatory minimum sentences to a relic of the 1970s/1980s drug wars and have discredited them foing reduce drug addiction nationwide.
In all, the legislature approved two bills considered a priority by SPLC AF that would:
- Let prosecutors charge a person with capital murder if they were responsible for providing a potentially lethal dose of a drug with fentanyl, even if fentanyl didn’t cause the death. (HB 365)
- Expand prosecutorial discretion when a person “overdoses” on a drug with fentanyl. (HB 365)
- Defining overdose in a vague that could include nausea or dehydration. (HB 365)
- Create mandatory minimum sentences (up to life imprisonment and a $1M fine) for anyone delivering specific types of fentanyl drugs to minors, including anything that has a cartoon character on it or resembles candy, cereal, a gummy, a vitamin or gum. (SB 1226)
On a positive note, the legislature approved SB 1478/HB 1263 – Criminal Sentencing that would revise provisions related to probation and alternative sanctioning program and modify scoring of community sanction violation points. SPLC AF supported this bill in committee and will look to work with the bill sponsors Sen. Corey Simon (R-Tallahassee) and Rep. Carolina Amesty (R-Orlando) in coming years.
Anti-poverty and worker's rights advocates have gained at the local government level, where local people have worked with lawmakers to protect against predatory landlords, discrimination and more.
As such, SPLC AF worked to defeat or minimize the impact of six bills related to local government preemption and the rights of workers to organize as they see fit, including bills that would:
- Preempt local governments from passing ordinances helping educate tenants about discrimination, what to do if facing eviction, or how an eviction notice is served. (HB 1417)
- Prevent certain public sector unions from automatic paycheck deductions. (SB 256)
- Increase the employee participation threshold for union certification. (SB 256)
- Allow businesses to sue local governments to prevent ordinances they consider arbitrary or unreasonable at an extreme financial cost to local government. (SB 170)
On a positive note, the legislature OK'd a tax package with a provision that would provide permanent sales tax relief on children's diapers and adult incontinence aids. SPLC AF had supported a similar bill and was excited to see it pass, even if it was within a more controversial tax package.
In some good news, the SPLC AF helped defeat a bill that would make it harder for peaceful observers to watch a police officer in the line of duty. As initially drafted, SB 1126/HB 1539 would create a 30-foot "halo" around a police officer or other first responder after a vaguely worded warning. Our criticisms highlighted infamous incidents of police brutality that were recorded on video, including George Floyd’s murder, would not be possible if this bill were to pass. With the ACLU of Florida, we asked bill sponsors for a shorter "halo" that gave the first responder the room they need to work and guaranteed that peaceful video/audio recording and observers could watch the action without interference. SPLC AF successfully added part of our amendment to the House bill, which wound up killing the bill in the Senate, leading to the ultimate demise of both unneeded bills.
And the SPLC AF helped defeat an anti-democracy bill that would:
- Jeopardize the ability of peaceful people to record or observe police or first responder actions, including instances of police brutality. (SB 1126/HB 1539)
The House Speaker and president of the Senate usually demand one or two large-scale bills and use them as bartering chips all session. This year, the House Speaker indicated that a universal school voucher bill would be among his priorities. As such, this bill was nearing passage before the official session start date, making advocacy harder. SPLC AF monitored this legislation and worked with our partners across the education and children's rights space to oppose this bill. We were happy to lend our knowledge of Capitol politics and processes to those advocates and groups outside of Tallahassee.
SPLC AF monitored or worked to oppose or minimize four bills related to Children's Rights in 2023, including legislation that would:
- Grant school tuition vouchers to any parent in Florida, including homeschool parents and the ultra-wealthy. (HB 1)
Also, we supported legislation (SB 938/HB 829) tied to the Baker Act that would mandate updated FAQ materials for law enforcement. The SPLC report Costly and Cruel: How Misuse of the Baker Act Harms 37,000 Florida Children Each Year says, “In Florida … we authorize the involuntary arrest, transport, hold and psychiatric examination of so many children under the Florida Mental Health Act, known as the Baker Act, that it has become a verb. Even worse, Baker Acting has become a ‘normal” behavioral management tool for far too many Florida classrooms, schools and foster care facilities. Children as young as 5 and 6 are handcuffed and forcibly taken by police to psychiatric hospitals, where they legally can be held for up to 72 business hours in conditions that would harm and traumatize even adults.
We support any efforts to make enforcement more humane and just; starting with basic instructions for law enforcement personnel is a good first start. We look forward to building on the efforts of bill sponsors Rep. David Silvers (D-West Palm Beach) and Sen. Traci Davis (D-Jacksonville) in 2024.
Spotlight on the 2018 Rights Restoration Amendment
Stemming from the "Big Lie" related to the 2020 General Election where Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump, lawmakers strived to make a show of voter fraud in Florida. But the reality of Florida’s safe and fair elections, with no evidence of fraud altering any election outcome, does not match the narrative of the Big Lie and those who perpetuate it. So, Republican lawmakers accountable to the loudest voices among their far-right base come every session since November 2020 to change election laws.
Compounding this situation has been the ongoing effort by Republican lawmakers to undermine the impact of the 2018 Rights Restoration Amendment (Amendment 4) that lets returning citizens convicted of nonviolent offenses to regain their right to vote. The legislature's harsh interpretation of the Amendment and failure to create a state database to help offenders understand eligibility status has created confusion among those looking to regain the right to vote. So, only a tiny percentage of about 1.1 million Floridians who could benefit from the amendment have taken the steps to register to vote.
In 2022, the legislature created the Office of Election Crimes and Security with SB 524 to allow for increased investigations, arrests, and prosecutions to combat voter fraud. Investigations stemming from this office led to the high-profile arrest of over 20 people just before the 2022 General Election. In some instances, those arrested for voting illegally were issued voter registration cards by their Supervisor of Elections, which the Division of Elections verifies under the purview of the Florida Department of State. Moreover, there have been reports that Supervisor of Elections staff encouraged some individuals to register. They would know they were eligible to vote if they received a card.
Despite his high-profile attempts to garner credibility among adherents to the Big Lie, Gov. DeSantis had come up mostly empty-handed. Due to the flimsy and confusing nature of the charges, many of these cases were thrown out before adjudication, which many saw as an embarrassment to DeSantis. In some instances, the Office of Statewide Prosecutor (OSP) wanted to assume control of these cases but was not allowed (as per law) because the OSP is only authorized to handle multi-jurisdictional crimes. But the law never got in the way of the governor before, and it would not this time.
The OSP was established by voters as a constitutional amendment amid organized crime racketeering in the ’70s/’80s. In Special Session 2023B, the governor supported a bill (SB 4B/HB 3B) that would refocus the Office of Statewide Prosecutor to include crimes related to elections or voter fraud. This change would allow his allies in the office to control cases and to prosecute them to aid the governor's narrative. SPLC AF mentioned this change in the scope of the intent of the office in testimony against this bill. But the legislature OK’d the bill, and the governor's continued coalescing of power continued.
SB 254 from 2022 also tasked the various Supervisors of Elections to produce recommendations for improving the vote-by-mail process. Their recommendations were published in February 2023 with the caveat that none of them should be implemented before the 2024 General Election, as there needs to be more time to educate voters, and there are still lingering supply chain issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Secretary of State Cord Byrd delivered this letter to a Senate committee in February. SPLC AF, in coalition with our voting rights allies, helped providing senators with talking points for this meeting.
Most experts saw Florida's 2022 election administration as painless (amid a meager turnout), but lawmakers returned with voting rights changes and restrictions for 2023. But lawmakers waited until Week Five to debut the Senate bill. And the bill's text was released less than 24 hours before the start of the committee where it would be voted on, leaving advocates and lawmakers scrambling.
But observers soon realized how damaging this bill would be to state voter registration efforts. Among the changes to elections law were massively increased penalties and fines for third-party voter registration organizations (3PVROs), severe limits on 3PVRO workers or volunteers, confusing changes to how a Supervisor of Elections maintains voter rolls, changes to vote-by-mail (despite the stated and written objections of SOEs), a new printed statement on voter information cards that seems to abdicate the state government responsibility to provide voter eligibility information, and much more.
The SPLC AF worked with coalition allies to analyze this bill, and supply talking points, fact sheets, questions and more. We also offered oppositional testimony in limited committee hearings available.
We should be proud that one SPLC AF's main point in testimony on the newly printed phrase on the voter information card was (partially) incorporated into a friendly amendment before final passage. As such, the legislature approved bills related to our democracy that would:
- Increase fines, fees, and regulations on third-party voter registration organizations. (SB 7050)
- Complicate and over-regulate the rules on vote-by-mail. (SB 7050)
- Over-regulate voter roll list maintenance for Supervisors of Elections. (SB 7050)
- Intimidate voters by making voting seem like a legal liability. (SB 7050)
- Create new bureaucratic steps to voter registration, adding increased liability. (SB 7050)
- Expand the scope of the Office of Statewide Prosecutor to include elections. (SB 7050)