The Florida Capitol Complex is viewed, Tuesday, March 29, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

OPINION | A look back at a bad legislative session for Northeast Florida

Published on March 10, 2024 at 2:49 pm

If we aspire in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln to government of, for, and by the people, what do we make of the 2024 Florida legislative session that just wrapped up on Friday? And what was in it for Jacksonville?

Locals didn’t get much this year. In terms of appropriations, a few singles and no home runs – no big appropriation like the Hart Bridge project or the UF Jacksonville campus seed money (even though Mori Hosseini’s pet project got another $75 million this year in UF funding, that was a win for one of DeSantis’ biggest donors more so than the city itself).

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Otherwise, JAXPORT got $26 million for crane replacement, UF Health $10 million for operations, and MOSH $5 million for its move across the river, but these were wins for the individual requesters that benefit specific projects rather than general quality of life.

The big drama going down the stretch was whether language in the tax package was going to compel Mayor Donna Deegan to have to sell a pension tax referendum in November 2026 to reauthorize the tax Lenny Curry sold a decade ago. Lobbyists talked smack about each other for a few days, and as I was first to report at another outlet, Speaker Paul Renner confirmed the tax package language that suggested referenda every 10 years doesn’t apply to Jacksonville’s pension situation.

The language was removed at the end of course. 

Who knows who put that language in the tax package to begin with. As John Adams said, failure has a thousand fathers while success has none. The father of that line apparently went to the store for milk and cigs and never came back. There’s plenty of speculation about who wanted to create a bad news cycle for the Deegan administration, anyway.

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Speaking of Deegan, her administration spent a lot of time in reactive mode this legislative session. 

The mayor had to devote a disproportionate amount of energy to a wild bill from Rep. Dean Black that in its original form would have allowed for retroactive sanctions of the mayor and her administration for removing the Confederate monument in Springfield Park. The monument protection bill is dead, and the monument remains gone, but the mayor spent a lot of political capital countering this Republican melodrama.

It could be argued that melodrama was the leitmotif of this session. Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, was at the center of a lot of it, squabbling with Republicans like Reps. Alex Andrade and Randy Fine – whose microaggressions against Black Democrats are tolerated in a Republican-controlled chamber.

While live quotes abounded, as did doomed message amendments, legislative accomplishments were few and far between for her district with many unmet needs. Nixon will go into a primary race against former City Council member Brenda Priestly Jackson, and it will be interesting to see how stakeholders engage. 

Sen. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, found himself in interesting places over the 60 days in Tallahassee as well. He briefly got crossways with Gov. Ron DeSantis over language he proposed to loosen prohibitions on land acquisition by Chinese nationals.

Yarborough was never DeSantis’ first choice as senator – that would have been Cord Byrd, who ultimately ended up with a better gig as Florida Secretary of State.

The big Yarborough story of the year was the bid to raise the age limit of adult entertainment performers to 21, a bill that got new life as an amendment late in the session. It was a smart process play, though, for language likely to earn a challenge in court if it were to become law.

Rep. Kim Daniels, D-Jacksonville, as usual, was on the wrong side of the Democratic caucus with her legislation setting up volunteer school chaplains in K-12 institutions. Not sure which Jacksonville parents wanted that, and the proposal has more holes in it than a shrimp net, as it gives districts wide discretion and little guidance on who they would allow to interface with their students. The self-proclaimed “holy roller” finds a way to work with Republicans on various bills more years than not, while Democrats can’t find a way to keep her on the side of their very small and increasingly left-leaning House caucus. She’s an army of one in the Capitol.

Rep. Jessica Baker, R-Jacksonville, meanwhile, was again focusing on enhancing penalties on criminals, hitting singles rather than home runs. It’s been a quiet two years for the main beneficiary of 2022’s legislative redistricting. After losing the race for future leadership of the caucus to the DeSantis-backed Jennifer Canady a few months back, it was a quiet session for Baker, except for her endorsement of Donald Trump while the governor was still in the race. 

Outside of Jacksonville, there were some interesting performances regionally.

Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. Johns County Republican, led an effort to crack down on people claiming damage from asbestos and silica by attesting to their smoking and marital history. Hutson is worth $16 million, and this was a classic move by a scion of wealth to smack down the poors. 

Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, got his bill trying to sell assault weapons to 18 year olds through the House, because we didn’t learn anything from Parkland, but not before making a gratuitous comment about “Black-on-Black crime” in defending his bill. The most high-profile moment of his career and he waded into a gutter of lowbrow two-minute-hate racism in pushing for the passage of a doomed bill that didn’t fool gun rights people. As one Second Amendment advocate told me, they do this because they know they don’t have to worry about it passing the Senate.

Then there was Rep. Sam Garrison, a Clay County Republican, who kept mentioning his “hometown of Jacksonville” when pushing his bill to set up homeless camps, creating a mechanism by which police can round up the unhoused and shuttle them to some to be determined location that changes once a year. In the words of Soul Asylum, that bill was a runaway train on a one-way track, and it will create an unfunded mandate and more pressures for strapped local governments like this one that can’t even manage to fix the sidewalks or the roads or even trim the bushes crowding those busted sidewalks in the city right of way. DeSantis wanted this bill, of course, though he cautioned against “Sodom and Gomorrah” homeless camps, because the short king is as ignorant about what it is to be down and out and bereft of hope as he is of the Old Testament. 

We opened with a Lincoln quote, so we might as well get a BOGO.

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Just as we see locally in the toxic cauldron of City Hall, we see hyper-partisan sparring in Tallahassee, and very little vision in how to work the process. A lot of message bills. A lot of distractions. And not a lot of juice for issues that matter to you.

That said, it’s not all bad. At least former Ambassador John Rood got $5M for a gym at the Jacksonville Classical Academy. And the state chipped in on some million-dollar vehicle Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters wanted.

Government of the people, by the people, and for the people?

Nope. Make no mistake. This is a foundationless serfdom rooted on the toxic sands of crony capitalism: fragile, uncertain, subject to destruction in some inevitable storm. Our city got less than it should have out of this session, and our region got played for rubes. 

Corrected: This column was corrected after publication to include the increase in UF funding for a Jacksonville grad school campus.

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor email A.G. Gancarski has been the Northeast Florida correspondent for Florida Politics since 2014. He writes for the New York Post and National Review also, with previous work in the American Conservative and Washington Times and a 15+ year run as a columnist in Folio Weekly.

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