By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate has long been considered the saucer that cools the hot tea, a metaphor purportedly coined by George Washington to describe the U.S. Senate’s tempering influence on the more hot-headed — and numerous — House of Representatives.
The Florida Senate has steadily crept away from the political center since Republicans secured a majority in both legislative chambers and cemented a hold on the governor’s mansion more than two decades ago.
But the November elections, the coronavirus pandemic and an expanded GOP caucus have emboldened Senate leaders to embrace what may be the most conservative agenda in recent years as they prepare for the 2021 legislative session that begins Tuesday.
“They are purely political red-meat issues, and they’re not real. These are not things that Floridians are clamoring for for legislative action,” Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview.
Proposals teed up for the legislative session run the gamut from education to policing and include measures targeting labor unions, expanding school-voucher programs and making it harder for Floridians to vote by mail. Senate President Wilton Simpson recently said the Senate also is open to a plan that would limit the amount of euphoria-inducing THC in medical marijuana, a move the Senate has blocked for the past two years.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump, is pushing legislation aimed at curtailing technology behemoths such as Twitter and Facebook. The governor is also championing a proposal that would crack down on violent protests, a plan that has received harsh criticism from Democrats and free-speech advocates.
While the Senate has not considered all of the controversial proposals, committees have given preliminary approval to bills, including the so-called “union-busting” measure and a plan to move away from the traditional pension system for state workers, that the upper chamber has blocked in previous sessions.
Simpson, R-Trilby, and Republicans head into the 60-day legislative session after the November elections bolstered the GOP’s strength in both legislative chambers. Simpson not only fought off Democrats’ efforts to make gains in the Senate, but he also picked up a Miami-Dade County seat, delivering a 24-16 majority to Republicans.
Simpson, however, doesn’t view legislation Farmer labeled “red meat” for Republicans through the same lens. The Senate president doesn’t even acknowledge that his chamber is more conservative in the aftermath of the 2020 elections.
“I think the conservative and liberal scale changes over time. I think that’s in the eye of the beholder,” Simpson told the News Service.
But Farmer said the Senate’s role as “the saucer that cools the hot tea” has eroded as Republicans have solidified their control.
“That is really I believe what the role of the Senate is supposed to be and what it’s historically been in Florida for many, many decades,” he said. Farmer blamed the more-conservative Senate on term limits and gerrymandering of legislative districts.
A 1992 constitutional amendment that limited legislators’ consecutive terms in office has resulted in what Farmer called the “House-ification” of the Senate — 31 of the Senate’s 40 members previously served in the state House.
Republican winners of House elections tend to be more conservative because they need to make it out of GOP primaries, Farmer noted. And right-leaning former House members moving to the Senate are more accustomed to House leaders’ top-down management style, he added.
“They were sort of indoctrinated into a thumb-on-the-scale approach by the (House) speakers they’ve had,” Farmer said. “So they really lost that sort of independence and they don’t, I don’t think, fully understand that, when they get to the Senate, they’re one of 40 senators, that they have great independence, that they are one of 40 Somali warlords.”
Farmer and other critics posit that GOP-backed bills being fast-tracked are designed to solidify support among Republican voters.
“Certainly, you have a governor who is an unabashed believer in Trumpism,” Farmer said, noting that Florida was “one of the few places” where Trump performed better last year than he did in 2016. “There may be a mentality of, they have us down and they want to put their boots on our necks by feeding their base and strengthening their base and maybe getting more Trumpers to decide they want to move to Florida so they have even more.”
But Simpson denied that the legislative proposals have been filed to bolster support for Trump or other officials who support the former president’s agenda.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with pandering to the base or the Trump base or anything else,” he said. “If you ask me this in 10 weeks, and we say, hey, these three passed, or these 15 passed, that would be a more fair question. … Because it’s easy, in my position, to say we’re the most conservative Senate ever, but the truth is, until you get the cake completely baked, you don’t know.”
While the Senate has long been viewed as more deliberative than the House, it has moved quickly on controversial issues during the committee weeks leading up to the session.
“Regardless of what anybody’s position is on an issue, it’s incontrovertible that the Senate is moving with incredible speed. The Senate does not appear to be engaging in the same level of discourse around these controversial issues, and the Senate is certainly not taking into account all of the facts around these issues as that chamber has typically done in the past. That’s just a fact,” Florida AFL-CIO lobbyist Rich Templin said in a phone interview.
The Senate’s coronavirus protocols might also be a factor in this year’s process, Templin said.
The Senate has adopted more stringent COVID-19 precautions than the House and has severely limited the number of people who can enter the Senate Office Building. Simpson has asked senators not to hold face-to-face meetings, for example, and has required members of the public who wish to be heard during committee meetings to testify from a civic center a few blocks from the Capitol.
Templin pointed to a measure that would shut future state workers out of a traditional pension plan. The proposal moved through a Senate committee “very, very quickly, not a lot of discussion,” he said.
“That’s a new thing,” Templin said. “I don’t see how the change in process that we’ve all witnessed, I don’t know if that is reflective of conservatism or what. … But what we’re seeing right now, it’s just not the same deliberative process in what is often considered the upper chamber that we have seen for decades out of the Florida Senate.”