After Donald Trump blasts insurance industry 'bailout,' Ron DeSantis retreats behind closed doors to sign it
The Trade Show (2023 ed.), Vol. 10
This is “The Trade Show,” a weekly collection of shorter news nuggets and stories from other outlets around the state and country about the special interest-driven issues that lawmakers spend most of their time working on. The name comes from something a mentor once told me before I covered my very first session of the Florida Legislature more than 20 years ago: “Ninety percent of what goes on up here is a trade show.” As always, our content here at Seeking Rents is free to all readers. But please consider a paid subscription to support our work, if you can afford one.
In mid-February, Gov. Ron DeSantis stood on a stage in Jacksonville, staring confidently out at the assembled television cameras, and announced that one of his top priorities this legislative session would be to protect insurance companies and businesses from lawsuits.
Yesterday, DeSantis signed his prized “legal reform” bill into law. But the Republican governor did so behind closed doors, without any TV cameras to film him or any reporters who might ask him about it.
What could have changed in five weeks to prompt such a subdued celebration?
Ten days ago, as DeSantis’ lawsuit legislation was racing through the state House and Senate, the former president — who remains beloved by much of the Republican Party voting base — ripped DeSantis for supporting the bill. “Ron DeSanctimonious is delivering the biggest insurance company BAILOUT to Globalist Insurance Companies, IN HISTORY,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social social-media platform.
It was just one handful from a bucket of muck that Trump has been slinging at DeSantis for weeks now, as Trump tries to soften up his former protégé ahead of what everyone expects will be a showdown for the 2024 Republican nomination for president.
But while Trump’s criticisms can sometimes be incoherent, he may have a case to make here.
Two of the most important pieces of DeSantis’ lawsuit package (House Bill 837) are directly aimed at protecting insurance companies. One part of the bill largely strips longstanding rights that consumers had to make insurance companies pay their legal fees if they won a lawsuit against them. Another part will make it harder to extract punitive damages from insurers that intentionally stonewall claims.
Just 33 minutes after DeSantis signed the bill — before the governor’s own press office had even announced it — the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida was already heaping praise on the governor.
“This is a watershed moment for Florida,” federation president and CEO Michael Carlson said in a prepared statement. “Florida legislative leaders and the governor should be recognized for the shared determination it took to swiftly move this powerful legislation across the finish line.”
And who, you may ask, does the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida represent?
State Farm. Allstate. Progressive. And Farmers.
Wanted: “Women behind the podium” and a “Conservative gay man”
Televised bill-signing ceremonies — whether and where to hold them and who to squeeze into the camera frame — are something the DeSantis administration thinks quite a bit about.
Emails obtained through a public-records request show the sometimes-crass political considerations that go into them.
Take last year’s 15-week abortion ban, which DeSantis signed in April 2022 at a church near Orlando.
In an early planning memo near the end of last year’s legislative session, DeSantis’ aides made clear that they wanted the governor surrounded by women when he signed a law outlawing virtually all abortions after 15 weeks — even for victims of rape, incest or human trafficking.
The “Visual,” they wrote, should be“Women behind the podium.” And the “suggested attendees” should include a “Large crowd of supportive women.”
And when DeSantis signed the state’s “Parental Rights in Education” law — also known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law — his staff had similarly specific ideas for optics.
For “suggested speakers,” they wanted a testimonial from a “Conservative gay man.” And the crowd needed to include “parents and very young children.”
Side note: They apparently never found their “Conservative gay man” for that event.
How a bill becomes law
The Florida House of Representatives began moving a bill last week that would let school districts across Florida contract with private vendors to install and operate “school bus infraction detection” systems on buses.
Think: Red-light cameras but on school buses and used to send $200 tickets to drivers who pass a bus while its stop-arm is extended.)
Lobbying-disclosure records show that one of the companies registered on the legislation (House Bill 741) is a business called BusPatrol America LLC, which recently launched a pilot program in Brevard County to install stop-arm cameras on 10 school buses.
Campaign-finance records show that, one month before the session began, BusPatrol put $200,0000 into a political committee controlled by an employee at one of the company’s lobbying firms.
Three days later, that political committee made nearly $200,000 in campaign contributions — including $35,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, $25,000 to a fund controlled by Republican leaders in the Florida Senate, and $10,000 each to committees controlled by the top budget-writers in the House and Senate: Rep. Tom Leek (R-Ormond Beach) and Sen. Doug Broxson (R-Pensacola).
Letting high-interest lenders charge even higher interest
Both the House and Senate will hold their first hearings next week on bills that would let high-interest lenders targeting low-income Floridians charge even higher interest rates.
The legislation would allow “consumer finance” lenders — companies like OneMain Holdings Inc., Oportun Financial Corp. and Mariner Finance LLC — to nearly double the interest rates they can charge their customers. Those customers are often folks with poor credit who find themselves in a sudden financial emergency, like a broken-down car that they need fixed so they can get to work.
The lending companies are part of a group called the Florida Financial Services Association, which has a political committee that records show has made more than $110,000 in campaign contributions over the past two months to more than three dozen members of the Legislature — mostly to Republicans but also to some Democrats.
The biggest donations include $10,000 each to fundraising committees controlled by Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin (R-Miami) and Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota) — the lawmakers sponsoring the high-interest loan legislation.
The House version of the bill (House Bill 1267) will be heard Monday morning in the House’s Insurance & Banking Subcommittee. The Senate version (Senate Bill 580) will be heard Wednesday in the Senate’s Banking & Insurance Committee.
Lawmakers may give Ron DeSantis ‘a secret, taxpayer-funded travel agency’
How convenient: Just as Ron DeSantis begins to crisscross the country on a nascent presidential campaign — and just as all the travel he’s done before is about to come under renewed scrutiny from national media — the Florida Legislature is advancing bills to make the governor’s travel records confidential. The unprecedented public-records exemption would even apply to trips DeSantis has already taken.
Read: DeSantis’, other officials’ travel records would be secret under Florida bill (Tampa Bay Times)
Read: Florida bill would shield DeSantis’s travel records (New York Times)
Read: Gov. Ron DeSantis’ travel is not a state secret | Editorial (Tampa Bay Times)
They may give him a bigger military force, too
The House of Representatives wants to turn DeSantis’ new Florida State Guard into a 1,500-troop force with a nearly $100 million budget, police powers, helicopters and boats — plus a $750,000 earmark for a tech vendor that lawmakers and lobbyists are being awfully cagey about.
Read: DeSantis’ State Guard vision: planes, boats, police powers (Tampa Bay Times)
An intentionally unconstitutional attack on journalism
Florida House Speaker Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast) acknowledged last week that a defamation bill moving through the Legislature that would make it much easier to sue news organizations — another idea pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis — is intentionally unconstitutional.
Renner told reporters that the legislation (House Bill 991 and Senate Bill 1220) is intended to provoke a legal showdown before the United States Supreme Court in hopes of potentially walking balk or overturning New York Times v. Sullivan, a 1964 decision that sets a very high bar for public officials to prove they have been defamed.
“I think the purpose of this bill is to be a test case for New York Times v. Sullivan — to say, ‘Okay, is there any limit at all, really, as it’s been applied? Or have we gone too far?’” Renner said. “It’s simply designed to create a challenge and allow, as the governor has asked for, to have the court give a second look at that aspect of defamation.”
This is something that DeSantis’ staff has acknowledged, too — internally, at least.
In a memo about an early draft of this legislation, which was obtained through a public-records request, the Governor’s Office wrote of the proposal: “To the extent these provisions conflict with existing Supreme Court precedent, this legislation aims to invite challenges to such precedent with the goal of restoring the original understanding of the First Amendment.”
This has quickly become a national story, which is probably just what Ron DeSantis wanted. But some conservative leaders and conservative news outlets are also turning against it, which may not be what the governor wanted.
Read: DeSantis wants ‘media accountability.’ A new bill makes suing journalists easier. (The Washington Post)
A Works Progress Administration but for politicians
At the start of this year, Ron DeSantis installed a new slate of trustees at New College of Florida, with a goal of radically remaking the tiny liberal arts college in Sarasota.
Less than three months later:
The new president is a former legislator.
The new general counsel is a former legislator.
The new foundation leader is the wife of a current legislator.
Oh, and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports that some of these hires may have been arranged in secret.
Read: GOP congressional aide and wife of state senator hired to lead New College foundation (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)
Read: Texts appear to show New College trustee coordinating motions to hire Corcoran and Galvano (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)
Busting unions and lying about it
The Florida Senate tentatively approved Ron DeSantis’ union-busting bill last week, but not before rewriting it on the floor of the chamber to try and put even more pressure on unions.
Part of the bill (Senate Bill 256) would require most public employees who wish to join a union to sign a new “membership authorization form” that would be loaded up with one-sided language emphasizing the costs of joining a union without mentioning any of the benefits.
But Republican senators concluded these forms might not be inflammatory enough to deter workers from agreeing to pay dues. So they amended the bill to make unions also add the names and compensation of their five highest-paid employees to each authorization form.
“We’re just doing it for transparency reasons,” Sen. Blaise Ingoglia (R-Spring Hill), the sponsor of the legislation, said on the Senate floor.
That’s a lie.
And, as we wrote last week, you can tell it’s a lie because Ingoglia made sure that none of this “transparency” would be provided to police officers, firefighters or prison guards — whose unions are more likely to support Republican elected officials.
What this bill really tries to do is crush the collective-bargaining power of hundreds of thousands of working Floridians — including teachers, bus drivers, 911 dispatchers, electric utility workers, nurses, state hospital personnel and more.
Read: Public-sector bill will dismantle unions, but they’re not going down without a fight (Florida Phoenix)
The power of collective bargaining
In case you need a reminder about the power of collective bargaining: Unions representing more than 40,000 workers at Walt Disney World struck a tentative deal last week with the company that will raise starting pay at Disney from $15 an hour to $18 an hour by the end of this year.
Read: Disney World, unions reach tentative deal for $18 an hour wage (Orlando Sentinel)