No Emergency Session for COVID, but Anti-Protest Bill Could Get Special Vote

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
On March 19, members of the Florida Legislature packed up their bags and left Tallahassee at the end of the legislative session. The timing could not have been worse: As they departed the state's capital, life was changing drastically for Floridians facing record levels of unemployment and a growing number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

But in May, Florida Republicans, who control the legislature, rejected a special session proposed by Democrats to discuss the state's job-loss program, a possible expansion of Medicaid, and improvements to mail-in voting. The Florida Senate's president-elect, Wilton Simpson, said a special session was unnecessary because the state was in "pretty good shape."

"Because Florida had been so fiscally responsible with the taxpayer dollar, we're actually in pretty good shape right now," said Simpson, a Republican from the west coast of Florida.

Although the problems of unemployment, COVID-19, and voting access have yet to solve themselves, this morning Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed that the legislature reconvene to address an issue affecting far fewer residents: public protests he deems "violent" and "disorderly."

Yesterday, the governor announced new legislation that would crack down on protesters who engage in activities as mundane as blocking traffic. This morning, DeSantis suggested that state lawmakers vote on his proposal during a one-day session in November.

"It's going to have broad support, certainly from the Republican caucuses in both chambers," DeSantis told reporters, according to the Sun Sentinel. "It may be something where you need to act."
While the full text of the bill proposed by DeSantis has not been released, the governor posted a summary of the Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act on social media. Among the changes, the bill would:
  • Implement felony charges when property is damaged or a person is injured as part of an assembly of seven or more people
  • Make it a felony for those in an unpermitted protest to block traffic and remove liability from drivers who injure or kill anyone "if fleeing for safety from a mob"
  • Allow prosecutors to tack on RICO charges for anyone who organizes or funds a "violent or disorderly assembly"
  • Withhold state funding from cities that defund their police departments
Although the governor's chief spokesperson, Fred Piccolo, tweeted that the proposal "has nothing to do with BLM," referring to the Black Lives Matter movement, DeSantis said in an interview last night with Tucker Carlson that he was spurred to action by what happened in Minneapolis, where protesters with Black Lives Matter and other groups clashed with police after George Floyd was killed by officers there.

"We also are concerned about watching Minnesota, what happened in Minneapolis, where the mayor just abdicated responsibility, had the police stand back," DeSantis said in the interview. "That gave these folks the ability to run amok."

So far, DeSantis' proposal has been roundly admonished by groups including the Dream Defenders, New Florida Majority, and the American Civil Liberties Union, which called the measures "undemocratic and un-American." State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, called the bill "fascist election stunt trash."

As of now, the Florida Legislature isn't scheduled to reconvene until March 2, 2021. But the state constitution calls for lawmakers to get together for an organizational meeting 14 days after a general election to select new officers. As Politico reporter Gary Fineout points out, it would be nearly impossible for the legislature to vote on DeSantis' complex proposal in just one day, meaning passing the governor's slate would require a multiday special session.

This morning, reporters, Democratic lawmakers, and activists were quick to point out that Florida Republicans had previously refused to call a special session to discuss and vote on ways to help residents secure unemployment checks or health insurance amid the pandemic:
Florida Senate president Bill Galvano also refused to reconvene lawmakers to vote on police reforms back in June, saying a solution could not be reached "in a time-limited special session."

So far, neither Galvano nor Simpson, who will replace Galvano in November, has commented on the governor's remarks about a special vote.