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Gov. Ron DeSantis makes final pitch for ‘bold’ reforms in State of the State speech

After weeks in the headlines, DeSantis addressed the Legislature at the start of their Legislative session, when the focus will largely shift to them.
SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis waves to members of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, March 5, 2019. He spoke to a joint session of lawmakers in Tallahassee.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Florida Governor Ron DeSantis waves to members of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, March 5, 2019. He spoke to a joint session of lawmakers in Tallahassee.
Published Mar. 5, 2019|Updated Mar. 5, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — Speaking to a packed Florida House on the opening day of the two-month legislative session, Gov. Ron DeSantis urged Florida lawmakers on Tuesday to support a conservative agenda that may end a brief period of faint bipartisan hopes in the Capitol.

“We here today are united in insisting that the constitutional protections central to a free society are honored for all of our citizens,” he said during his state of the state address. “Let’s fight the good fight … so that when Floridians look back on the fruits of this session, they will see it as one of our finest hours.”

Those aspirational sentiments were in keeping with the tone of DeSantis’ first two months in office. He’s established a breakneck pace in traveling the state, announcing core conservative policies with a smattering of moderate stances on issues, especially on the environment, that have given Democrats something to cheer.

But after weeks of policy announcements across the state, the opening of the legislative session marks the time when promises become bill language — and the grinding out of policy specifics turn political platitudes into fights and horse-trading.

During a 30-minute address, DeSantis threw down the gauntlet on his top issues, some of which may become flashpoints — the elimination of so-called sanctuary cities, the suspension of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, private school voucher expansion and tough stances on Latin American regimes.

Shortly after his speech ended, Democratic leaders launched videos that warned of “ominous signs” that his proposals will end up “sowing more divisiveness.”

Freshman Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat and a member of the new Legislative Progressive Caucus, said she especially took issue with DeSantis’ stance on immigration, saying it was rooted more in rhetoric from Presidential Donald Trump than in fact.

“There are no sanctuary cities in Florida,” Eskamani said. “So let’s stop the Trump talking points and focus on making life better for Floridians, including people of color.”

DeSantis spent much of the speech discussing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting last year, which he said the Parkland families believe was “the most preventable school shooting, maybe in history.”

Although DeSantis suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel shortly after he took office and replaced him with Gregory Tony, the Florida Senate is reviewing that suspension.

READ MORE: Ron DeSantis and GOP poised to redefine Florida public education

“The failures of the former sheriff are well-documented,” DeSantis told House members. “Why any senator would want to thumb his nose at the Parkland families and to eject Sheriff Tony, who is doing a great job and has made history as the first African-American sheriff in Broward history, is beyond me.”

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, seemed disturbed by that comment and unsure if DeSantis had heard a specific comment from a senator he felt he needed to address.

“I thought of everything that was in that speech, that was a bit of an awkward moment,” he told reporters later, adding that he’s asked senators to “give it the respect that it’s due and not prejudge.”

“I’ve said this before: We’re not just going to be a rubber stamp for the governor,” Galvano said.

DeSantis also returned to one of his specialties while in Congress: foreign policy, this time to get tough on the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela.

“To the Venezuelan exile community here in Florida ... we stand with you and with the people of Venezuela who are seeking freedom and a better future for the nation of Venezuela,” he said. He then turned to Cuba, which he said is enabling the chaos in Venezuela. “I would like to see the Castro dictatorship go the way of Maduro and to see a free and democratic Cuba take its place.”

DeSantis also emphasized his commitment to staunchly defending Israel, saying he will “vigorously” enforce policies that penalize companies that boycott Israel, which Florida has already begun to do with AirBnB.

“This whole enterprise of targeting Israel for economic harm is such a fraud and merely a cover for anti-semitism,” he said, taking a position more hard-line than many other politicians, even in Washington.

His speech wasn’t devoid of compromise. He opened his remarks by highlighting issues popular on both sides of the aisle: cleaning up Florida’s natural waterways, helping the Panhandle recover from Hurricane Michael and the pardon of four black men, known as the “Groveland Four,” who were wrongly accused of raping a white woman 70 years ago. They were punished and in some cases murdered.

But his speech was more notable in exposing the rifts ahead.

Already, differences in opinion between DeSantis and legislative leaders have emerged, such as Republican House Speaker José Oliva’s aversion toward the record-spending proposed in DeSantis’ $91.3 billion budget plan. Funding for colleges and universities especially could be a point of contention. DeSantis pitched upping university spending minutes after Oliva suggested cutbacks to what he said was an “endless appetite for new construction”

In the Senate, Galvano has expressed early skepticism toward a DeSantis health care proposal that, along with cooperation from the feds, would allow Floridians to import prescription drugs from Canada. Galvano has said he is unsure of the legality of a state getting involved in international commerce, a power reserved for Congress.

But those early disagreements weren’t part of the pomp of the opening day of session, which allowed all three leaders to outline their hopes for the next two months in how they wish to shape the policies in the nation’s third-largest state.

During his speech, Oliva stressed that his top priority will be reducing the cost of health care. That “industrial complex” has become a “five-alarm fire,” the Miami Lakes Republican said. He said health costs eat up monstrous portions of the Florida budget because the industry is too highly regulated and lacks market competition.

“We must engage the consumer so that market forces can apply,” he said.

In contrast to Oliva’s explosive ideas, Galvano urged moderation in a brief speech that was light on specific policy goals other than his pitch to expand Florida’s Suncoast Parkway as part of an infrastructure package.

“Let’s be president George Washington’s saucer: to cool, to vet, to understand,” the Bradenton Republican said.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said DeSantis has a quality that he says is critical to being successful in the Legislature: “He’s really likable.”

And Lee predicted it will pay off.

“It’s still a business that’s run on relationships, and he seems to be working hard to do that,” Lee said. “I think he’s going to have a successful session. I really do.”

Times/Herald staff writers Lawrence Mower, Samantha Gross and Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report, which will be updated.


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