DeSantis’ ‘big government’ extends to record state budget

Lawmakers passed a $117 billion spending plan with bipartisan support.
The traditional hanky drop that signifies the end of the legislative session took place in a packed rotunda on Friday.
The traditional hanky drop that signifies the end of the legislative session took place in a packed rotunda on Friday. [ ALICIA DEVINE | AP ]
Published May 5|Updated May 5

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis has presidential-size ambitions this year, and state lawmakers gave him a budget to match.

With the governor potentially days away from announcing an expected run for president in 2024, legislators on Friday approved a record $117 billion spending plan that gives DeSantis another political springboard into the race.

Friday was the final day of the legislative session, and lawmakers assigned tens of millions of dollars to pursue DeSantis’ political goals — from reshaping New College of Florida to flying migrants around the country. They’re assigning millions more to fend off the inevitable lawsuits that will follow.

Lawmakers also continued to expand the executive branch, which has seen its budget grow nearly 600% since DeSantis took office.

DeSantis’ “big-government” conservatism has prompted Republican lawmakers to open up the checkbook, spending billions to expand social programs, preserve the environment and give state workers pay raises.

The spending even has the approval of Democrats, who voted unanimously for the budget on Friday.

Republican leaders have justified the spending by pointing to the state’s booming sales tax revenues. They are required to pass a balanced budget, so if the revenue is there, they can spend it. The state has also been helped by billions of federal dollars from the Biden administration.

“People say we’re spending money left and right,” said Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne. “But our economy is growing and we have the money to spend, and we’re spending it all in the right places.”

DeSantis’ agenda

Lawmakers funded nearly every DeSantis agenda item this year.

They approved another $12 million to continue DeSantis’ migrant flights, even though the program has only financed one trip that flew 49 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last year. They’re assigning $109 million to expand DeSantis’ Florida State Guard, although Republican senators were doubting a few weeks ago that the fledgling agency could spend that much.

Lawmakers are also supporting DeSantis’ wish to impose conservative ideology on the state’s education system.

A plan to offer every K-12 school-age child in Florida a voucher or education saving account, regardless of family income, comes with a projected total cost of $2.2 billion.

New College of Florida is receiving $25 million to recruit faculty and students and offer salary increases to its top deputies. The influx comes months after DeSantis picked a group of hard-line conservative loyalists to shake up the liberal arts college.

“We are investing in New College,” House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee chairperson Jason Shoaf, R-Port St. Joe, said Thursday. “The governor has put a lot of emphasis on making sure that all of our institutions are at peak performance.

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DeSantis has said that he wants to remake the university in the image of Hillsdale College, a private Christian school that is highly influential in the conservative world.

Lawmakers also assigned $30 million to the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education, a new conservative school affiliated with the University of Florida. The center is meant to educate students on issues such as the “principles, ideals and institutions of the American political order.”

While the governor asked for the additional money this year, the center’s creation last year was pushed by a mystery group affiliated with conservatives and religious organizations.

Lawmakers are also assigning tens of millions of dollars to support DeSantis’ decisions.

After his administration this year banned local governments from using Chinese-made drones, lawmakers assigned $25 million to help police replace them.

DeSantis’ Department of State, which has been bombarded by lawsuits over the GOP’s changes to voting laws, was granted $2.8 million for litigation expenses.

The Attorney General’s Office is getting $5 million for legal expenses “related to COVID-19 vaccines.” The university system Board of Governors received $2 million for litigation.

“We want the governor to be in a comfortable position to be able to speak his mind,” said Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, when asked about the litigation expenses.

Democrats pointed out that the spending flies in the face of historic GOP beliefs.

“The days of the Republicans being the voice of small government are long gone,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa.

Limited government?

In his latest book, DeSantis makes no mention of the need to reduce the size of government but instead elaborates on his strategy of using expansive government power to protect individual freedoms against what he called the “woke mind virus.”

DeSantis’ philosophy is a shift from two decades ago, when Jeb Bush was governor and the Republican-led Legislature proudly cut over $1 billion on a $50 billion budget.

“I don’t think government grew back then as much as it’s probably grown now,” former GOP House Speaker John Thrasher said in an interview with the Times/Herald in March. “And it seems to be growing more because the budget seems to be getting bigger and the economy is getting bigger.”

The Executive Office of the Governor’s budget has been by far the fastest-growing of any state agency since 2017, the year before DeSantis took office, although it includes the Division of Emergency Management, which has received hundreds of millions of new dollars since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Although Democrats were critical of some of the priorities, they praised the spending across state government.

Every state worker is getting a 5% pay raise. Lawmakers didn’t expand Medicaid, but they are spending more than $20 million on expanding the health insurance program for low-income children this year. Lawmakers also approved nearly $80 million to serve several hundred people waiting for Medicaid services, although thousands remain on the waitlist.

The state allocated $7.7 million to study food insecurity and more than $2 million to boost the call center to apply for state assistance, noted Esteban Leonardo Santis, a policy analyst at the progressive Florida Policy Institute.

And legislators set aside a record $711 million for affordable-housing projects and $1 billion for environmental programs and land purchases.

Local projects requested by House Democrats represented 5.6% of the $2.8 billion in House member projects, according to Democrats’ analysis. Democrats make up less than a third of the House. But every Democrat has at least one local project in the budget, Republicans noted.

“There is fabulous consensus when it comes to this budget,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando.

How much of the budget survives DeSantis’ veto pen remains to be seen. Last year, DeSantis touted “record” vetoes on his way to cutting $3 billion from lawmakers’ $112 billion budget, including some of the top priorities of Republican leaders. This year, he indicated he wouldn’t have to make so many cuts.

And he indicated the budget will give him plenty of headlines over the next several weeks.

“Buckle up over the next days and weeks,” DeSantis said Thursday. “There’ll be a lot of good stuff that we’ll be highlighting based off what we’ve been able to do working with the Legislature.”

Miami Herald reporter Grethel Aguila contributed to this report.

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