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Florida lawmakers give DeSantis more appointment power

The bill arose following clashes between DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried over the appointment of a Department of Environmental Protection secretary.
 
Without debate, the House on Wednesday voted 77-34 to approve a measure that would increase the governor’s power to appoint certain positions.
Without debate, the House on Wednesday voted 77-34 to approve a measure that would increase the governor’s power to appoint certain positions. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published March 10, 2022|Updated March 10, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and his successors will have more power over some high-level state appointments under a bill the governor signed Thursday.

Without debate, the House on Wednesday voted 77-34, mostly along party lines, to approve a measure (SB 1658) that would increase the governor’s power to appoint the secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, the commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the executive director of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

The governor later signed the bill into law without fanfare.

House sponsor Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, said Tuesday the current system “is a perfect example of government inefficiency,” arguing changes should have been made after voters in 1998 approved reducing the size of the state Cabinet from six to three positions.

A 1998 constitutional amendment merged the Cabinet offices of the treasurer and comptroller as the chief financial officer and removed the elected secretary of state and education commissioner from the panel and made them appointed positions.

When the state had six Cabinet members, some agency head appointments required the governor to win support from three Cabinet members, and that requirement mostly went unchanged after the consolidation.

Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, said Tuesday the current system provides an “appropriate balance” of oversight of agency heads that “seemed to kind of work quite well.”

But Republican lawmakers started moving forward with changes after a clash last year between DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried about DeSantis’ move to appoint a new Department of Environmental Protection secretary without Cabinet approval.

Related: DeSantis appoints Florida’s environmental secretary; Fried challenges hire

The governor’s office cited part of the state Constitution dealing with executive departments that says: “When provided by law, confirmation by the Senate or the approval of three members of the Cabinet shall be required for appointment to or removal from any designated statutory office.”

Fried, the only Democrat on the Cabinet and a candidate for governor, pointed to a law creating the Department of Environmental Protection. That law says, “The head of the Department of Environmental Protection shall be a secretary, who shall be appointed by the governor, with the concurrence of three members of the Cabinet. The secretary shall be confirmed by the Florida Senate. The secretary shall serve at the pleasure of the governor.”

DeSantis appointed Shawn Hamilton as Department of Environmental Protection secretary in late August. Hamilton has been with the agency since 2007 after a 20-year career with the U.S. Air Force.

The new law changes the approval process for the three positions, giving the governor more authority. As an example, it says the governor would be able to appoint the Department of Environmental Protection secretary with the “concurrence of three members of the Cabinet or subject to confirmation by the Senate.”

Related: DeSantis bid to appoint environmental leader advances in Senate

Fried has lambasted the legislation as a “power grab” by DeSantis.

The governor has the power to appoint most agency heads, subject to confirmation by the Senate.

Earlier Wednesday, the Senate omitted Hamilton when voting to confirm 49 other executive appointments. Ethics and Elections Committee chairperson Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the Senate was holding back the appointment as “there’s a bill pending related to that structure of appointments.”

By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida

Editor’s note: This story was updated after the governor later signed the bill.

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