In recent months, the Florida Legislature has been a hotbed of far-right measures, from new abortion restrictions to a law stifling the discussion of racism while at school or work. Leading the state’s rightward course has been Gov. Ron DeSantis, whom NBC News in June described as having a “hand-in-glove relationship with the Legislature” that has “made the state a test kitchen for conservative ideas.”
American Oversight has obtained records that point to this close relationship, including emails sent in late 2021 that include proposed bills that appear to have been drafted by DeSantis’ office.
Some, like the abortion ban, the anti-CRT law, and the bill creating a new election police force, were signed into law in April 2022. Other records obtained by American Oversight contain draft bills and constitutional amendments that weren’t passed but would have reduced government transparency, increased executive authority, and made it harder to amend the state constitution. Another set of emails reveals that just over a week after DeSantis proposed a six-month gas tax holiday, his office instead sent lawmakers draft legislation that limited the tax break to only a single month just before the November election.
In November 2021, DeSantis publicly called for cutting the tax on gasoline for roughly six months to address high prices at the pump. However, according to emails obtained by American Oversight and reported on by the Tampa Bay Times, the governor’s director of legislative affairs, Stephanie Kopelousos, drafted legislation to delay the gas tax break until October 2022 and to limit it to just one month. On Dec. 1, 2021, just nine days after the governor announced his support for the six-month cut, Kopelousos sent a draft of the bill to the office of state Sen. Aaron Bean, the vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The bill passed in May.
DeSantis and other state lawmakers insisted they chose to wait to implement the gas tax break until October because it was the month when there would be the fewest tourists, but provided no data backing up that claim. Critics accused DeSantis of pushing the tax break closer to Election Day to bolster his reelection campaign.
American Oversight also obtained legislation drafted by DeSantis’ office that was reported on by investigative reporter Jason Garcia for his publication Seeking Rents.
One proposed bill would have made it more difficult to extract public records from the governor’s administration by requiring requesters to wait an unspecified but potentially long time (“beyond a reasonable period from the date of the public records request”) before filing a lawsuit to compel the release of records, instead of the current five days.
Another draft bill would have reorganized Florida’s executive branch to give the governor more power to bypass the state’s independently elected cabinet, which includes the state attorney general. The bill would have expanded the governor’s authority to make decisions on a variety of issues, including community development and land use.
Finally, DeSantis’ office also drafted two constitutional amendments that would have made it more difficult to alter the state’s constitution through citizen-led efforts.
Currently, a proposed amendment can pass with 60 percent of the vote throughout the entire state. But the first amendment drafted by DeSantis would change the threshold to 60 percent of voters “in each county of the state.” The second draft amendment would have banned residents from proposing amendments to repeal provisions listed in Article I of the state constitution. That article includes Florida’s 2008 ban on same-sex marriage, a significant concern given heightening fears that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ultra-conservative majority might overturn Obergefell.
In April, DeSantis signed into law a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The restrictive measure includes an exception only if the pregnant person is in danger of death or serious injury.
On Dec. 1, 2021, Kopelousos emailed Dee Alexander, Sen. Bean’s chief senior legislative aide, with an attached draft of a bill proposing a ban on abortions after 15 weeks. Kopelousos indicated that she had spoken with Bean the night before about “putting some bills in bill drafting.”
On Dec. 15, Alexander sent Kopelousos proposed revisions to the bill in an email containing “6 of your 8 drafts” that had been “released for approval.”
The bill was filed in January as H.B. 5. After it was signed in April, the law replaced a previous restriction on abortions after 24 weeks. A judge temporarily blocked the ban in June, but it was quickly reinstated after the state filed an appeal.
In April, DeSantis enacted the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act, also known as the Stop WOKE Act, an attempt to stifle classroom discussions about racial injustice and inequality. The Florida law mirrors a wider trend of conservative states passing measures to exert political control over schools by banning things that could potentially be seen as “critical race theory” (CRT).
On Dec. 1, Kopelousos emailed Tonya Shays, state Sen. Jennifer Bradley’s legislative assistant, with an attached draft of a bill titled “The Correcting Wrongs against Our Kids and Employees Act of 2022.” The draft, which became H.B. 7, contains anti-CRT language used by other states prohibiting certain discussions of race in both classrooms and during employment trainings, provisions that were included in the law that passed.
On Dec. 15, Shays emailed Kopelousos a comment from a bill writer for the legislature noting that while it addressed both educational instruction and employment practices, “amendments to this [sic] distinct areas of law are not typically folded into a single bill.”
H.B. 7, signed into law in April, banned workplace trainings and classroom lessons that are perceived to say, among other things, that individuals are “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” on the basis of a personal trait. Opponents fear that this and similar language used in the law could be broadly applied to discourage all conversations about systemic and structural oppression or inequality.
Following a lawsuit filed by teachers and parents who argued that the law violates the First Amendment right to free speech, a federal judge ruled in June that the ban could go forward. A second, similar suit was filed by businesses that month.
Another law DeSantis signed in April established an Office of Election Crimes and Security, a police force housed within Florida’s Department of State that is tasked with combating voter fraud. Part of the clear pattern of fear-mongering about election integrity that sprang from Trump’s lies about a stolen election, experts warn that the office is likely to intimidate voters and make it more difficult to vote, especially for people of color.
Kopelousos emailed the draft bill to Shays on Nov. 30, writing, “Can you please put this in bill drafting?” The draft gave the new office the authority to “investigate election law violations or election irregularities.” It also proposed “video surveillance cameras” at drop box sites, a provision that was not included in the final version of the law.
The bill was folded into S.B. 524, which, along with establishing the new office, banned ranked-choice voting, tightened voter ID restrictions for mail-in ballots, and increased penalties for so-called “ballot harvesting,” which is when one person collects absentee ballots from multiple people and drops them off at a drop box.
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