Ron DeSantis touts environment, teacher pay as conflict looms in 2020 session

In his 30-minute State of the State address, the second-year governor barely mentions climate change.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis waves to members of the Florida Legislature during a joint session of lawmakers, Tuesday, January 14, 2020 in Tallahassee.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis waves to members of the Florida Legislature during a joint session of lawmakers, Tuesday, January 14, 2020 in Tallahassee. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]
Published Jan. 14, 2020|Updated Jan. 14, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Invoking Christopher Columbus and his “discoveries” in America, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told state lawmakers on Tuesday to seek out new political frontiers, declaring that “there is no reason why we can’t seize this moment.”

The “State of the State" speech, made annually by governors at the start of each legislative session, was DeSantis’ second since taking office last year but first where he had a track record.

Much has changed after an initial legislative session that was marked by the passage of major Republican priorities. Some had repeatedly failed in years past — such as passing a ban on so-called “sanctuary cities," approving new private school vouchers and allowing teachers to carry guns.

DeSantis, in last year’s speech, outlined a conservative agenda that he hoped would get done. This year, he declared victory on those “bold beginnings.”

Despite his show of confidence, his honeymoon period with lawmakers seems to be ending. Already, legislative leaders have expressed disagreement with two of the governor’s top priorities: requiring employers to check their hires’ immigration status using e-Verify and creating a statewide minimum teacher salary of $47,500.

DeSantis pressed the need for both during his speech.

“We are a state that has an economy, not the other way around. And we need to make sure that our Florida citizens from all walks of life come first,” he said of e-Verify, an online system.

DeSantis, 41, touted last year’s pivot on environmental issues, primarily his 2019 executive order to improve water quality and restoring the Everglades.

The governor received more than $625 million for such projects, a quarter of a $2.5 billion promise he made to spend on water quality over the next four years — and a $1 billion increase from past spending.

By forging a new path last year as an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump who tacked left on environmental issues, he gained some bipartisan support in Florida and beyond. He’s boasted that his relationship with Trump helped nab more federal funding for things like a major Everglades restoration project.

“Because Florida had skin in the game, we were able to get support from the Trump administration," he said.

Looking ahead to 2020, DeSantis urged lawmakers to keep up the momentum by putting up $625 million for water projects through the rest of his four-year term, passing water quality legislation he has proposed and penalizing municipalities that dump untreated wastewater into Florida’s waterways.

While DeSantis spent his first year in office wooing some, he didn’t get the approval of all. This week, he got a "D" in his report card from the Sierra Club, in part because he signed a bill to build toll roads that are expected to kill Florida panthers and other protected wildlife. He also received an "F" on climate change, which other than a lone reference to “rising seas,” he did not mention during Tuesday’s 30-minute speech.

Following up on an initiative he began nearly one year ago to eliminate the “vestiges of Common Core” from Florida’s academic standards, DeSantis said he will be “unveiling the new approach in the coming days.”

Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran was required to submit recommendations for those new arts and math standards by Jan. 1, but DeSantis’ office has so far refused to make those public.

Still, DeSantis hinted at what will be included in the new standards, including “a renewed emphasis on American civics and the U.S. Constitution.” He then went on to list major historical events he felt were “animated” by America’s founding documents.

While Florida students are already required to learn the Constitution, DeSantis has repeated since the early days of his campaign that there needs to be more emphasis on both that document and its impact.

On abortion, he also made an off-the-script dig at the Florida Senate, noting that the House had passed a bill requiring parental consent for minors to get abortions last year, while the Senate had not. The bill is expected to pass both chambers this year.

DeSantis also poked fun at Florida’s First Family, noting that Casey DeSantis will give birth to the couple’s third child, a girl, a couple weeks after session, which means there will be three children under 3 in the Governor’s Mansion — a rarity.

“Chaos will officially reign supreme in our household,” he said.

In his opening speech Tuesday, Florida Senate President Bill Galvano gave no hints to his priorities in his last legislative session, instead urging his colleagues to maintain "civility and decorum” and quoting Mother Theresa.

Meanwhile, House Speaker José Oliva signaled he intends to stay focused on healthcare issues, calling on members to improve the state’s child welfare services and allow advanced nurse practitioners to expand their scope of practice.

But he also hammered a message of fiscal restraint — "spending is not caring, solving is caring,” he repeated — and acknowledged a potential fissure between the traditionally fiscally conservative House and DeSantis: boosting teacher pay.

He committed only to “a significant, equitable and sustainable proposal" to do so.

Speaking to reporters after his speech, Oliva went further, questioning DeSantis’ desire to go from No. 26 to No. 2 in the nation for average starting teacher pay. Such a jump would happen under his proposed plan, according to statistics from the National Education Association.

“No. 2 compared to what? Compared to a state whose cost of living is significantly higher than ours?” Oliva said.

Another possible flashpoint is guns. DeSantis didn’t mention them in his speech, but speaking to reporters afterward, he was asked about the Senate’s advancement of a bill that tightens a loophole in the state’s background check law when people buy firearms at gun shows.

“There’s no exemption on gun shows,” he said, repeating a National Rifle Association talking point. "If you go to a gun show, anyone selling firearms there at any of those tables, they have the same laws.”

However, because state law does not require a background check for private sales or gun shows, there is no guarantee guns have not fallen into the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, the author of the Senate plan, said he hasn’t spoken with DeSantis and has considered trying to put an amendment directly on the ballot before voters, which wouldn’t require the governor’s signature.

“We’re going to have to engage with him,'' Lee said. “It is legal to sell at a gun show without a background check in 57 counties."

Except for mentioning Trump once, in how the White House helped secure Florida environmental spending, DeSantis didn’t mention the man that many credit with winning him the governor’s mansion in 2018.

Yet the faraway specter of the president haunted DeSantis. His ties made him a target for one Democratic presidential candidate, former vice president Joe Biden. He released a statement after DeSantis’ speech that charged "Florida Republicans (are drawing) battle lines that advance the failed policies of Donald Trump.”

And DeSantis refused to answer questions from reporters afterward about a Monday Wall Street Journal story that revealed that texts between DeSantis and Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas were among a batch of messages turned over the U.S. House Intelligence Committee as part of impeachment proceedings. Parnas is a Ukrainian-American businessman who lives in South Florida indicted and charged with scheming to funnel foreign money into various U.S. elections.

St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes said DeSantis was “on point” with Tuesday’s address, even though he noted that he didn’t address some of his signature interests like criminal justice reform and insurance issues.

“He’s highlighting all his great successes in Florida, and casting a vision for where we’re going to head in the future,” he said. “He’s hitting all the right areas.”

But Rep. Cindy Polo, D-Miami Lakes, was less enthusiastic. She said it sounds to her that hot button issues are going to rule the day in order to energize the Republican base ahead of November.

“I don’t think there is an appetite for [local issues],” Polo said, noting that her community in northwest Miami-Dade is still seeking relief from mine blasting that residents say have damaged their homes nearby.

“After hearing the agenda items that were discussed today, I don’t necessarily think our community is going to be top of mind. I hope I’m wrong."