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DeSantis to Florida lawmakers: ‘Stay the course’

On the opening day of the legislative session, the governor’s State of the State address on Tuesday read like a greatest hits list.
 
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is welcomed to a joint session of the Senate and House by House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, left, and Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, to give his State of the State address in Tallahassee on Tuesday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is welcomed to a joint session of the Senate and House by House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, left, and Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, to give his State of the State address in Tallahassee on Tuesday. [ GARY MCCULLOUGH | AP ]
Published Jan. 9|Updated Jan. 9

TALLAHASSEE — After years of pushing state lawmakers to enact a conservative agenda that generated headlines for his presidential campaign, Gov. Ron DeSantis had a message for them: Keep it up.

DeSantis’ State of the State address on Tuesday read like a greatest hits of sessions past. At his urging, the Legislature dramatically expanded vouchers for students, cracked down on immigration and fought the “woke mob,” he said.

“My message is simple: Stay the course,” he told lawmakers. “The state of our state is strong. Let’s keep doing what works.”

DeSantis’ address marked the beginning of Florida’s annual 60-day legislative session — and a shift in tone from recent years, when he used the address to pitch lawmakers on new programs and ideas.

This year, he mentioned just one: an idea to make it easier for Jewish students to transfer to Florida universities from other states. On Tuesday afternoon, the university system chancellor issued an emergency order waiving various fees and deadlines for potential students.

It was a speech written for Iowa and New Hampshire voters, House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said afterward.

“I was surprised that there was no real vision for Florida,” Driskell said. “I came away feeling, OK, so where do you want to take us next?”

While DeSantis spoke, winds whipped outside the Capitol. Tallahassee was under an earlier tornado warning and state offices aside from the Capitol were closed as a powerful line of storms ripped through the Panhandle.

After images of extensive destruction near Panama City rolled in, DeSantis issued a state of emergency for 49 counties. He later held a news conference at the state’s emergency operations center in the afternoon.

“I think tropical storm-force winds on opening day must be good luck — kind of like rain on your wedding day,” Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, joked earlier.

DeSantis’ address was a rare public stop in Tallahassee during his presidential run. On Tuesday, he did not attend speeches by Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, which governors usually attend. Afterward, he quickly left, not lingering to shake hands and absorb lawmakers’ applause.

He was due in Iowa on Tuesday evening for a Fox News town hall about women’s issues.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House in Tallahassee on Tuesday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House in Tallahassee on Tuesday. [ GARY MCCULLOUGH | AP ]

Touting “limited government”

In a theme familiar to his campaign speeches, DeSantis contrasted Florida with the rest of the nation.

America is in a “great upheaval” and cities have “decayed,” he said. Public safety in Chicago is “devastated.” San Francisco is stuck in a “doom loop” that has “eviscerated the quality of life.”

Florida, though, is “a refuge for freedom and sanity,” DeSantis said.

The governor also spent much of Tuesday’s speech portraying himself as a small-government conservative who practices good governance — in contrast to the “recklessness of spending” by the federal government.

“We have set the standard for limited government,” he said.

He mentioned twice that Florida has the fewest state employees per capita — a fact driven in part because the state has struggled to fill vacancies across government. It has so few corrections officers that members of the National Guard are filling in.

The governor has hitched his political stardom behind bold uses of state power, from suspending local prosecutors to targeting Disney after the company criticized the Parental Rights in Education legislation, also known as Don’t Say Gay, that he signed in 2022. DeSantis has also restricted classroom instruction on race and gender and made it easier to ban certain books from schools.

His Republican opponents have called such use of state power a betrayal of conservative principles. Democrats agreed.

“Freedom of speech and peaceful protest have been curtailed, destroying constitutional protections assured by the First Amendment,” Senate minority leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, said afterward.

Under DeSantis, the state’s budget has broken records each year. The state’s tax revenues have boomed, and Florida recovered quickly from the pandemic. But the budget has also been larger thanks to billions in federal coronavirus relief dollars that Sen. Rick Scott urged DeSantis to return.

DeSantis has also spent millions to carry out his conservative agenda, with little public disclosure or oversight of the spending.

The executive office of the governor has grown nearly 600% on his watch, larger than any other state entity. Top officials who carry out his agenda have received extraordinary paydays. The president of New College of Florida, the roughly 800-student school that he’s reshaped into a conservative bastion, has a $1.3 million compensation package. Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, who has championed DeSantis’ anti-COVID vaccination policies, makes more than $430,000 per year between his state salary and University of Florida position.

“Let’s be clear: there is nothing ‘fiscally responsible’ about Ron’s agenda,” Florida Democratic Party chairperson Nikki Fried said in a statement Tuesday.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House in Tallahassee on Tuesday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House in Tallahassee on Tuesday. [ GARY MCCULLOUGH | AP ]

Lawmakers’ priorities

Even if DeSantis isn’t touting new policies, legislative leaders have ideas of their own.

Passidomo wants legislation boosting the number of doctors and nurses and steering Floridians away from getting treated at expensive emergency rooms. On Tuesday, she cautioned that expanding Medicaid wasn’t on the agenda.

“I’m not going to spend the next 60 days relitigating Medicaid expansion,” she told senators.

In the House, Renner told representatives that he wanted to see a ban on children under 16 using social media and a prohibition on their ability to access pornography.

“Call it a culture war if you want, but it is another battle to defend common sense against those who want to obliterate the distinction between adulthood and childhood,” Renner said Tuesday.

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporters Romy Ellenbogen and Ana Ceballos contributed to this story.