TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis had a simple message to Floridians during his address to state lawmakers on Tuesday.
“We were right,” he said, “and they were wrong.”
Celebrating a booming economy and riding high in the polls during his run for reelection, DeSantis echoed his talking points over the last year during his State of the State address to state lawmakers on Tuesday.
Florida was right to reopen the state early, he said. The federal government’s restrictions are wrong. Ideas such as critical race theory must be stamped out, and China and the U.S. border with Mexico remain threats.
“While so many around the country have consigned the people’s rights to the graveyard, Florida has stood as freedom’s vanguard,” he said. “Florida has become the escape hatch for those chafing under authoritarian, arbitrary and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions.”
The address marks the start of Florida’s annual legislative session in Tallahassee, when lawmakers convene for 60 days to pass laws and craft a state budget for the next fiscal year.
Overshadowing everything this session is the 2022 election, as well as redistricting and the 2024 presidential election, which DeSantis is widely seen as eyeing.
Unlike legislators, who have a self-imposed ban on fundraising during session, the governor can continue to raise money. In the last several months, every time he has held a rally-style news conference to announce a legislative proposal, his election team would follow with a fundraising pitch to supporters.
DeSantis has spent the last several months outlining many of the things he wants from lawmakers this session. He wants a new elections security office, enhanced penalties for some election law violations, $8 million to remove “unauthorized aliens” from Florida, a ban on critical race theory in schools and businesses, $1,000 bonuses for teachers and first responders, suspending $1 billion in gas tax collections for about five months this year and passing a proposed $99.7 billion state budget.
Several of his proposals, including suspending gas tax collections, are being subsidized by federal coronavirus relief dollars issued by the federal government.
The Democratic challengers for governor are also competing for attention. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist — now a St. Petersburg congressman — and state Sen. Annette Taddeo of Miami are each eager to exploit what they see as the governor’s mistakes.
“This governor couldn’t lead Florida out of a paper bag, let alone a once in a lifetime pandemic,” Fried said Tuesday. “And it shows in the so-called priorities he outlined today.”
Ahead of DeSantis’s speech, Crist released a video criticizing the governor, saying he and his donors are thriving while working Floridians struggle to access housing, health care and fairly priced utilities.
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“This is Gov. DeSantis. He’s not there to help unless, of course, you cut him a check,” Crist said in the video.
Simpson focuses on environment, foster care, preemption
Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican, is running to succeed Fried as agriculture commissioner. He used his opening day speech to focus on the environmental record legislators have pursued for several years — an issue central to farmers in Florida — but offered no new initiatives.
Buoyed with billions in federal stimulus money, Simpson said the state will continue to invest in the environmental programs of the past. Simpson, who was adopted as a child, also spoke about continuing investments in foster care and making foster children “a priority.”
“This session we have a chance to sow the seeds that will grow our future,” he said.
In a change, he said he would keep a “sharp eye out” for legislation that would hamper local governments’ ability to adopt local ordinances. For years, GOP lawmakers have exerted control over local governments on topics ranging from police budgets to clean energy initiatives.
But Simpson said he supported a controversial bill this year (Senate Bill 620) that would require local governments to conduct a fiscal impact statement before passing a local ordinance. The bill would also allow business owners to sue for any losses their companies take because of the ordinance.
“It’s been said that ‘with great power comes great responsibility,’” Simpson said Tuesday. “We want to ensure that local governments are exercising one with the other.”
The opening day of session is the only day lobbyists are allowed on the floor of the House and Senate chambers, as former presiding officers and legislators are allowed to sit amid their former colleagues even as they represent clients before them.
Unlike last session, when the Capitol was mostly closed to the public and COVID-19 testing of lawmakers and staff was a weekly priority on the Capitol grounds, there was little evidence of the pandemic left this year.
As the House and Senate convened, there were few on the floor and in the gallery wearing masks, except for reporters. Social distancing is still encouraged inside committee rooms in the House and Senate.
Sprowls’ civics curriculum proposal
The rejection of pandemic-related restrictions in favor of economic freedom was a consistent theme during the address to lawmakers by House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.
Sprowls said public health officials “aren’t saints, and they aren’t sinners.” Instead, they were “ordinary government bureaucrats,” he said, “no different than the insurance industry lobbyists, nursing home owners (and) criminal justice reform advocates.”
“They spend their days looking through a narrow keyhole, and they see the world in monochrome,” Sprowls said. “It’s our job as legislators to see the entire horizon, the full spectrum.”
Sprowls introduced a plan to distribute a civics curriculum, developed by state representatives and teachers, to every fourth-grade classroom in the state.
“I’m especially excited to share with you that the curriculum has a component that will allow each one of you as a legislator to participate in teaching our fourth graders about state government and civics,” Sprowls said. “I believe we are the first chamber in any state legislature in America to adopt our own educational curriculum.”
The announcement is a departure from the norm. Usually, the state adopts standards and leaves the creation of curriculum and materials up to districts.
It is unclear which lawmakers and which teachers have helped develop the House’s curriculum. It is awaiting approval from the Florida Department of Education. A spokesperson for the House did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.
A copy of the draft curriculum has also not been made available to the public yet.
Democrats in the House and Senate countered Republican leaders’ agenda by focusing on pocketbook issues and empowering local officials and working families instead of “the rich and connected.”
“Florida Republicans have been running this show for 20 years but where has it gotten us? Out-of-touch policies focused on culture wars and not the real issues facing real Floridians,” said Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, of Plantation.
House Minority Leader Evan Jenne, a Dania Beach Democrat, said the Legislature should be focused on addressing the rising cost of rent and homeowner’s insurance and helping unemployed Floridians who need help.
“We need to stop giving away Florida’s tax dollars to rich corporations,” Jenne said. “These dollars came from you, hardworking Floridians, and they should be used to rebuild infrastructure and grow the state, not pad the wallets of billionaires.”
Democrats have criticized DeSantis’ approach to government, accusing him of trying to bolster his ranking in public opinion polls, particularly with his base, by pushing for efforts aimed at restricting public health protections such as mask and vaccine requirements.
“In reality, he abdicated his responsibilities and left it to the local governments,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat. “And so the mayors and county commissioners had to be the grown-ups in the room and make the tough calls to help keep us safe, and to help ensure that freedom that Gov. DeSantis likes to talk about so much.”
Tampa Bay Times reporters Romy Ellenbogen and Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.
Watch the speech below, or at The Florida Channel.
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