Gov. Ron DeSantis opened the 2021 legislative session Tuesday with a premature victory lap and a hard-right agenda. It was bad timing for that message in a state still gripped by the pandemic, whose economy is a long way from normal, and now it falls to lawmakers to shift from Tuesday’s political theater to the pressing concerns of everyday Floridians.
DeSantis used his annual state-of-the-state address as all Florida governors do — as an opportunity to award himself an inflated grade and to lay out his legislative agenda. On that score, the speech achieved the usual heights of self-promotion and revisionist history. DeSantis faulted other states for taking some of the same restrictions that Florida imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus. He also spoke in the past tense of the human and economic toll the virus inflicted on Florida. DeSantis rightly noted that Florida was a leader in reopening schools and businesses. But he gave no nod to the state’s culpability in neglecting its unemployment and public health care systems. And he failed to acknowledge how even the partial closures he authorized in Florida helped spare a public health crisis from becoming even worse.
Given this delicate phase in battling the virus, with the vaccine rollout still in flux, the legislative priorities DeSantis presented Tuesday seem overly partisan and out-of-step with the times. He championed a so-called “anti-rioting” bill that aims to crack down on protected speech and peaceful assemblies. He wants restrictions on Big Tech companies to keep them from policing their platforms from customers who abuse them. DeSantis also seemed to encourage more preemption bills from the Legislature as a means to micromanage local governments. These are partisan overtures to the conservative base that do nothing to address Florida’s post-pandemic recovery.
The governor did mention several initiatives worthy of bipartisan support, such as $1 billion in spending over four years to harden Florida against rising seas and impacts of climate change. He called for further investment in K-12 education, and for renewed emphasis on civics courses and vocational training. Lawmakers in both parties also need to follow through on promises made last year to fix Florida’s broken unemployment benefits system.
For all the boasts about Florida being open, however, the Capitol complex remains closed to visitors, and the pandemic-related restrictions on attending legislative meetings will leave lawmakers to face even less public scrutiny this year than usual. That’s a recipe for abuse, especially as Floridians are preoccupied with getting shots, making ends meet and navigating their children through an unnerving school year. This is an especially welcoming time for legislative restraint.
The pandemic exposed a host of issues that should be on the front burner in Tallahassee, from how many Floridians live paycheck-to-paycheck to the housing burden for working families and the need for a functional unemployment system. The more immediate threat to Florida is not riotous cities, but a safety net frayed to an unhealthy point for America’s third-largest state. Lawmakers need to focus on the core concerns of anxious Floridians, and the public needs to double down on overseeing a legislative process that is yet another step removed.
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