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Long list of substantive legislation undercuts the media’s artificially inflated ‘culture war’ narrative

The 2023 Florida legislative session concluded an hour ahead of schedule on Friday, with the Republican-majority House and Senate approving a record $117 billion state budget, accompanied by a $1.3 billion tax cut package.

Despite vocal opposition by Democrats over major policy issues throughout the session, Republican supermajorities in both the House and Senate ensured DeSantis, House Speaker Paul Renner, and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo were able to deliver on their campaign promises from start to finish. Notably, both the budget (SB 2500) and the tax package (HB 7063) passed with unanimous support from both Republicans and Democrats.

Yet read just about any news story about the 2023 session, and you might come away believing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies in the state legislature are waging an all-out culture war in Florida at the expense of substantive policy issues. A simple internet search for the term “Ron DeSantis” immediately yields a matrix of stories painting the picture of a scorched-earth campaign against Disney, “woke” politics, racial justice, the LGBT community, library books, pronouns –  you name it. And worse, those stories claim, DeSantis is hurting not just Florida through the pursuit of the controversial policies, but his own presidential ambitions in the process.

Case in point: here’s the lead paragraph of Friday’s Tallahassee Democrat story about the end of the legislative session:

Florida lawmakers ended a two-month legislative session filled with divisive, conservative policies condemned by critics as cruel but crafted to power Gov. Ron DeSantis’ expected bid for the Republican presidential nomination. 

DeSantis certainly hasn’t shied away from controversial political fights, including the legal quagmire pitting Walt Disney Company against the State of Florida, as well as a small handful of other so-called “culture war” issues. But the herd-mentality media has vastly overplayed its hand with claims of the 2023 session being “filled with divisive policies.”

A look at the actual bills passed tells a completely different story. Here’s just a short list of the non-culture war highlights:

There were 247 bills passed this legislative session either headed for DeSantis’s desk, or already signed into law. That’s roughly the same number as the last two legislative sessions. The vast majority of those bills were substantive policy matters having nothing to do with the media’s amped-up “culture war” narrative.

“Speaker [Paul] Renner has never once focused on the culture war,” said State Rep. Alex Andrade, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, “Looking at our budget and the bills we passed, hurricane recovery and supporting Florida consumers is the overwhelming and overarching theme of this Session.”

While it’s impossible to quantify, there were likely more property insurance bills passed (16) over the course of the legislative session than there were so-called “culture war” bills. There were also 27 health care-related bills approved by both chambers, and that’s not even counting bills touching on mental health, substance abuse, and nursing home regulations.

Then there were the priority policy bills championed by House Speaker Paul Renner (universal education vouchers) and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo (affordable workforce housing). Both leaders got their top priorities passed in the earliest days of the session, allowing more time to zero in on less exciting but still important policy matters.

“The idea that this Session was focused on culture wars is just ridiculous to me,” says Andrade. “We doubled our affordable housing funding, increased infrastructure spending by $6 billion dollars, passed historic property insurance and tort reform legislation. If that wasn’t enough, we spent the majority of our time working on bipartisan legislation. I can cite to countless examples, including policies on the protection of historical black cemeteries, research on sickle cell anemia, improving the retirement benefits of our first responders and a massive, historic reform of our education finance program.”

But time and again, Florida and national media outlets played up “controversies” and highlighted small but vocal Democrat opposition, despite the fact that Democrats hold very little political power in the Florida capitol complex. The media coverage over the last two months often failed to account for the fact that Republicans came to Tallahassee with a mandate to deliver on political promises after voters delivered GOP supermajorities in both chambers, and a 20-point blowout in the governor’s race last year.

In short, Republicans were elected to deliver on campaign promises, and that’s exactly what they did.

It’s easy to find examples of the disconnect between the media’s “culture war” narrative and reality. For example, during a question and answer session with Passidomo on Wednesday afternoon, a reporter for Politico asked if she thought the Senate “would be doing all these bills if it wasn’t for the fact that the governor is about to run for president?”

Passidomo didn’t bother to push back on the artificially-inflated culture war narrative implied with the phrase “all these bills.” Instead, she tore into the other lurking accusation embedded in the reporter’s question: that the legislature has been acting as a “rubber stamp” for DeSantis’s presidential aspirations. Her response to Politico was direct and to the point.

“Look and see the makeup of our chambers,” Passidomo said. “These were bills that individuals were passionate about, and pursued passionately in getting across the finish line. Whatever’s happening on the outside, politically, I don’t know, but I do know that our members care.”

Not waiting for the end of session to tout the legislature’s work and undercut the “culture war” narrative, Passidomo sent around an embargoed memo to members of the press late Thursday evening, The memo ran some 3,500 words in length, and included a comprehensive list of the policies that Passidomo herself was most proud of. Notably, her list included the recent expansion of the parental rights legislation at the center of DeSantis’s ongoing feud with the Walt Disney Company – the centerpiece of the “culture war” narrative.

The takeaway from her memo was poignant: the so-called “culture war” isn’t the only thing going on, but those supposedly controversial “culture war” issues don’t belong to solely to DeSantis either. Plenty of Republicans view the issues as vitally important.  And if the 2022 election results are any guide, millions of Florida voters feel that way, too.

“From workforce housing, to school choice, to insurer accountability, to public safety, we listened to our constituents, incorporated ideas and feedback from our communities, and made our mark with historic reforms to keep our state affordable and her people free,” Passidomo wrote in the email.

There may be a culture war going on, and DeSantis may even be adding fuel to the fire himself. But don’t let the overblown news stories fool you. A lot of important policy work got done in Tallahassee over the last eight weeks, and it’s exactly what an overwhelming majority of Floridians voted for.

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