DeSantis is a long way from Florida. Lawmakers at home have noticed.

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DES MOINES, Iowa — What a difference a year and a not-so-successful presidential campaign makes.

Last year, Florida’s annual legislative session became a 60-day grinding marathon as Republicans in charge pushed through a long line of conservative and controversial proposals on abortion, sexual orientation and guns that Gov. Ron DeSantis would ultimately use as selling points for his presidential bid.

Ahead of this year’s session that starts Tuesday, however, the Florida governor spent most of his days in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he’s been campaigning to win the GOP presidential nomination. DeSantis, who has struggled to gain traction in the race, is scheduled to dip back into Tallahassee on Tuesday to give his annual “State of the State” speech, but so far he has laid out only a threadbare agenda compared to previous years.

His focus on his presidential campaign instead of the session — the most important several months for lawmakers in the state — has left legislators frustrated. He hasn’t rolled out a long line of policy initiatives he wants from legislators or communicated to legislative leaders what he wants done.

“We really don’t know what this session is about, which is odd,” said state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, the leader of the House Democrats.

It’s quite a remarkable turnabout for a governor who has multiple times pressed legislators into action, including pushing them to hold special sessions over his battle with Disney and to show solidarity with Israel after the Hamas attacks. DeSantis has been one of the most powerful governor in Florida in decades and holds sizable clout with the Legislature.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, while meeting with reporters in early December, said she had called DeSantis to press him on his legislative priorities and that the governor had quipped about getting everything he had wanted the previous year.

And DeSantis has made that point repeatedly on the campaign trail in Iowa this past week as he maintains that he had “over delivered” on his promises to Florida voters.

It was fresh off his resounding reelection win in November 2022 that DeSantis pressed his GOP allies in the Legislature to enact a sweeping set of legislative proposals. Lawmakers ultimately passed bills scrapping concealed weapons permit requirements, banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, prohibiting gender affirming medical care for minors and opening up private school vouchers to any family that wanted them.

A DeSantis ally, given anonymity to speak freely, said the aim was to make sure that he could not get outflanked on the right during the presidential campaign.

DeSantis did release a budget framework in early December that lays out spending priorities, including a round of tax cuts and additional money on signature items such as teacher pay increases and Everglades restoration. But beyond that, legislators have been left with little guidance from the governor.

State Sen. Blaise Ingoglia (R-Spring Hill), who is close to DeSantis and helped shepherd several of the governor’s priorities last year, insisted DeSantis and his administration were actively engaged heading into this year’s session.

“He’s still going to have his imprint on the session,” Ingoglia said. “I know the governor’s team … have been engaged in a lot of pieces of legislation. To say they are not active is not giving them credit.”

Florida’s annual legislative session is taking place while DeSantis is in the middle of a crucial make-or-break period for his presidential campaign. He is currently locked in a battle with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley over who will be the main challenger to former President Donald Trump, who remains out in front according to polls in the key early nominating states such as Iowa.

DeSantis, along with much of his campaign team, is embedded in Iowa as the Jan. 15 caucuses draw closer. This week, before the kickoff of the Florida legislative session, DeSantis is crisscrossing the state as he tries to win the state outright or mount a decent second place showing that could help him regain momentum. New Hampshire’s primary comes a week later on Jan. 23, with the South Carolina primary following a month later.

The prospect that DeSantis will be focused on his presidential campaign and not what’s happening back home is a complete reversal from recent years — although it wouldn’t be unprecedented. Previous GOP governors would let legislative leaders set the tone and agenda of the session and not weigh in, especially on controversial proposals.

Passidomo and Senate Republicans are already pushing ahead with several major proposals, including a rewrite of school regulations and testing standards that has drawn opposition from former Gov. Jeb Bush and his supporters. Passidomo is also pushing an initiative to boost the number of medical professionals working in the state.

But even if the governor isn’t playing a major role, there could still be some heated battles between Democrats and Republicans.

Democrats have already sharply criticized a bill that would loosen up the state’s child labor laws and allow 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to work full time. Republicans have also sponsored bills to lower the age-buying requirement for rifles that was adopted in the wake of the Parkland massacre, bar government agencies from requiring employees to use certain personal pronouns about their coworkers, and a measure that would require students to be taught that the Democratic Party in the 19th Century supported slavery.

“My suspicion is that it will be more of the same,” Driskell said. “The session will probably start smoothly but then the floodgates will open.”

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