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​This Year, DeSantis Won’t Loom as Large Over Florida Legislative Session

When the Florida Legislature begins its annual session on Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis will be on hand — fleetingly. After giving his State of the State address, he will leave for Iowa, where he has a packed campaign schedule ahead of the Republican presidential caucuses on Jan. 15. Few in Tallahassee expect to see much of him in the months that follow.

His absence will be a conspicuous change from the last few years, when Mr. DeSantis loomed large over the Legislature, his every major wish granted by friendly lawmakers. The Republicans who control both chambers were eager to curry favor with the state’s political superstar, who seemed poised to lead their party’s presidential field.

Instead, Mr. DeSantis’s presidential bid has struggled. His pitch to make America more like Florida has lost much of its fizz, with the frenzied culture wars that have gripped the state proving less appealing to a national audience. To date, the governor has lagged far behind former President Donald J. Trump in the polls.

Mr. DeSantis’s job approval among Floridians has dipped, polls show. He remains a powerful figure, able to destroy lawmakers’ dreams with his veto. But everyone in the Capitol knows that Mr. DeSantis is not as invincible as he once seemed.

“If he were the front-runner in the presidential race, things would be very different,” said State Representative Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat and the House minority leader. “He’s finding out that all these culture wars that he fought for in Florida aren’t winning him votes.”

So lawmakers have prepared for a different kind of session, one that could feel like a breather after Mr. DeSantis’s resolve over the last two years to reshape state policies in eye-catching ways that he hoped would appeal to Republican primary voters.

To be sure, Mr. DeSantis has proposed a budget that prioritizes some of his top issues on the campaign trail. He has asked for more money to fly newly arrived migrants from the Southwest border to states like Massachusetts and California, and to pay teachers extra if they take a state-sanctioned civics course with a clear conservative ideological bent.

But while in previous years he barnstormed nearly every corner of Florida to stump for his proposals, unveiling new ones nearly every day as the Legislature prepared to convene, Mr. DeSantis spent the weeks leading to this session crisscrossing early voting states.

It is unclear how long Mr. DeSantis will stay in the race if he does poorly in those contests. But by March 8, when the legislative session is scheduled to end, about half the states will have held their primaries.

“It’s going to be a different session for sure,” said State Representative Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican. But he added that a slower pace would merely reflect the governor’s success in transforming Florida over the past two years, noting, “He got everything passed.”

Mr. DeSantis has enacted so many significant and divisive policies since 2021 that they — and the lawsuits challenging many of them — have become difficult to track.

Vouchers toward private school tuition for all public school students who want them. Abortions restrictions after six weeks of pregnancy. Bans on diversity and equity programs at public universities. Death sentences without unanimous juries. Carrying concealed weapons without a permit. Redrawn congressional districts to further favor Republicans. Outlawing transition care for transgender children. Weaker tenure protections for public university professors. An office to investigate election crimes. Stripping Disney of some of its powers.

But a month before the new session was scheduled to begin, as lawmakers met in Tallahassee for committee meetings, few could articulate the governor’s 2024 priorities. (A sex scandal involving the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, who is expected to be replaced on Monday, did not help).

Privately, some lawmakers say they are just fine with a slower session — especially going into a general election year, when many politicians would prefer to finish in Tallahassee quickly and then be free to campaign. That is, in fact, why every four years legislative sessions in Florida begin in January rather than in March.

New bills proposed by legislators include one that would remove state restrictions on when 16- and 17-year-olds can work, and others aiming to expand the health care work force.

Nick Iarossi, a Tallahassee lobbyist and co-chairman of Mr. DeSantis’s campaign finance committee, said that lawmakers and the governor have done more than just focus on culture war issues in recent years but that those issues have captured most of the attention. With fewer contentious proposals from Mr. DeSantis on tap, “the things that made him popular in Florida,” such as raising teacher pay and funding Everglades restoration, might get more notice, Mr. Iarossi said.

Democrats, who hold little sway in Republican-controlled Tallahassee, accuse the governor of being an absentee executive while he campaigns for higher office. They say he and Republican lawmakers have failed to help Floridians get relief from steep housing and insurance costs.

Floridians “wonder why the government is so focused on banning books,” Ms. Driskell said. “They want to know, ‘What is the Legislature doing for me?’ And we have no answer for them, because everything has been about DeSantis’s ambitions.”

In his new budget, Mr. DeSantis recommended a one-year exemption on taxes, fees and assessments on property insurance for homes worth up to $750,000. Floridians’ rates rose by an average of 57 percent in 2022, the highest in the nation.

Kathleen Passidomo, the Senate president, said Mr. DeSantis is still in Tallahassee often — “He’s here more than you think” — and even when he is away, stays in frequent touch.

And lawmakers know that, even if the governor bows out of the presidential race, he will remain a political force in the Capitol, with three more years left in his term.

“He still has his veto pen,” Ms. Driskell said.

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