TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis opened Florida’s legislative session Tuesday with a full-throated defense of his pandemic response and an outline of conservative policies he wants state lawmakers to pass in the run-up to his re-election campaign next year.
“I see, in many parts of our country, a sad state of affairs: schools closed, businesses shuttered and lives destroyed,” DeSantis said in a 30-minute State of the State speech to a packed Florida House chamber. “While so many other states kept locking people down, Florida lifted people up.”
DeSantis, who in last year’s speech focused on immigration priorities and creating a statewide minimum teacher salary of $47,500, described a different legislative agenda on Tuesday, one marked by optimism with echoes of a campaign rally.
“Florida is dedicated to free and fair elections, we cannot allow Big Tech to interfere in our elections by putting a thumb on the scale for political candidates favored by Silicon Valley,” DeSantis said, reiterating his desire to penalize social media companies whose algorithms are perceived to favor one candidate over another.
DeSantis’ political momentum
DeSantis has passed the midpoint in his four-year term and is positioning himself for reelection in 2022 — or what many say could be higher political aspirations. In recent days, the governor has had reason to feel optimistic.
He finished first in a CPAC straw poll that showed a Trump-less field of potential 2024 GOP presidential candidates. DeSantis also holds a comfortable lead over potential Democratic 2022 gubernatorial challengers, according to a new Mason Dixon Polling & Strategy poll released Tuesday.
In his speech, DeSantis repeatedly touted his policies during the pandemic and credited his approach to what he views as a rosy outlook in Florida.
“Our nation and our state have endured a tumultuous year. Floridians have responded in ways that would make our founders proud,” he said. “Because of those efforts, the sun is rising here in Florida — and the Sunshine State will soon reach new horizons.”
The governor’s budget proposal for the 2021-22 fiscal year — which is advisory only — is a $96.6 billion outline that is $4.3 billion more than the budget Florida lawmakers passed last year. The growth was made possible by the infusion of billions of federal cash into education, health care, vaccinations and testing — and better-than-expected state tax revenue.
A new $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package pending before the U.S. Senate could give Florida state and local government $16 billion in one-time aid, more than enough to erase the state’s estimated $2 billion budget shortfall. How that will play a role in the upcoming state’s budget remains to be negotiated.
“The bottom line is that we saved Florida’s economy, and as a result our budget outlook is positive,” DeSantis said. “The priorities we’ve championed — from water resources to education to infrastructure — can still be honored. Let us get it done.”
Some Republican lawmakers, however, have already warned of potential budget cuts in education and other government programs. House Speaker Chris Sprowls, for instance, has warned school districts that if student enrollment numbers don’t rebound after the pandemic, their funding could be impacted.
DeSantis, however, said he rejects reductions in K-12 education funding and called on lawmakers to continue investing in teacher pay.
House, Senate leaders address their chambers
In his speech, DeSantis said he looks forward to working with Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.
“I know you guys will be great partners for progress, being from Pasco and Pinellas and me being a Pinellas County kid growing up, I think the Tampa Bay area should be well represented in this next go-round,” DeSantis said.
Simpson and Sprowls also delivered remarks to their respective chambers on Tuesday, and laid out their legislative agendas. Both highlighted legislation that would shield businesses from COVID-19-lawsuits, a priority that DeSantis said he supports.
In the Senate, Simpson said he also wants to expand school choice programs, improve the state’s unemployment system and tackle a voter-approved constitutional amendment that raised the minimum hourly wage from $8.65 to $15 by September 2026.
“Just because they gave us the time doesn’t mean we ought to take it,” Simpson said. “I would like this year’s budget to provide increases to our lowest paid workers. It’s one more way to honor these blue collar workers who are laboring every day to provide for their families.”
Simpson added that there will be “tremendous amount of work” in the wake of the pandemic that would allow the state to be better prepared for future health crises, prevent shutdowns and improve the unemployment system.
In the House, Sprowls said he wants to advance measures that would prepare the state for sea level rise, overhaul the state’s workforce development system and fight racial disparities in healthcare.
In his speech, Sprowls struck a more combative tone than Simpson. He urged House members to protect Floridians from the “intolerance created by the rising Woke agenda,” and reiterated a call for fresh conservative ideas.
“Will we be brave or boring? Will we hide inside our safe spaces where we are right and everyone else is wrong, or will we climb to find higher, common ground? Will we spend our days chasing praise on Twitter, or will we actually change policy to improve the lives of Floridians?” Sprowls asked members. “Those choices rest entirely with each of us.”
Democrats push back
Democrats responded by blasting DeSantis’ priorities.
Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, called them “insensitive and tone-deaf.” House minority co-leader Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the GOP bills “worry us.”
“Instead of immediately trying to pass something that directly helps the people of Florida, we see political distractions,” DuBose said. “These simply should not be a priority right now.”
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, said she agreed with the governor that schools should be open and commended him for “getting that right,” but she said his handling of it was confusing and flawed.
“I mean, we had three separate orders that went back and forth on opening the schools, and there was a lack of resources that were given to the schools to make them safe,” Fried said. “And the fact that he has been so bullish on all of this, that he feels that was his way or the highway. It’s not a collaboration.”
“He’s not listening to people, and he’s making decisions that are just based on what is next in his political career,” she added.
Herald/Times reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.
• • •
Tampa Bay Times Florida Legislature coverage
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news from the state’s legislative session. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.