Lt. Gov. Janet Nuñez flanks Gov. Ron DeSantis as he takes questions from reporters following his State of the State speech on Jan. 11, 2022. Credit: Michael Moline
Gov. Ron DeSantis opened the 2022 regular session of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday by crowing that he has kept Florida “the freest state in these United States” during the COVID crisis and promising to continue to oppose a “coercive biomedical apparatus.”
During his annual State of the State address before a joint session of the Florida House and Senate, lawmakers offered frequent applause as the governor outlined an agenda he’s been presaging during a series of campaign-style appearances as he runs for reelection in the fall and keeps an eye on the next presidential election.
They include such culture war touchstones as opposition to mask and vaccine mandates; punishing businesses that resettle asylum seekers in Florida; evicting “woke” culture from schools and businesses; and restricting abortion access.
“Together, we have made Florida the freest state in these United States,” DeSantis said. “While so many around the country have consigned the people’s rights to the graveyard, Florida has stood as freedom’s vanguard.”
He criticized “blind adherence to Faucian declarations” regarding restrictions intended to slow spread of the coronavirus.”
“Even today, across the nation we see students denied an education due to reckless, politically-motivated school closures, workers denied employment due to heavy-handed mandates and Americans denied freedoms due to a coercive biomedical apparatus.”
DeSantis did not acknowledge that he, himself, early in the pandemic imposed a stay-home order restricting thousand of nonessential businesses and schools. He since has expressed regret for that and has insisted on enforcing parents’ right to decide whether their children wear masks or take COVID shots.
The Legislature has 60 days to debate those and additional issues before its scheduled adjournment, although lawmakers may extend the session if they need to. The only legislation they are obliged to pass is the state budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. DeSantis has asked the Legislature to approve a budget of $99.7 billion, including $15 billion in reserves.
That’s possible, the governor noted, because of continued robust tax collections, which he attributes to his blocks on COVID-related business restrictions. Billions in federal COVID-relief dollars have helped, too, but DeSantis didn’t mention that.
Opening day ceremonies were festive, as usual, with lawmakers sitting in a House chamber bedecked with floral arrangements. Masks were not much in evidence, particularly among Republican members adopting the skepticism of COVID prophylactic measures embraced by the governor and former President Trump.
In attendance were the three members of the Florida Cabinet — Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, and Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried. DeSantis snubbed Fried — a Democrat seeking her party’s nomination to take on DeSantis this year — when shaking hands with the other (Republican) Cabinet members before his speech.
The governor made three references to God — in describing Florida’s “unique natural inheritance;” in praising an elderly couple who benefited from monoclonal antibody therapy; and in urging the Legislature to “build upon our rock of freedom.”
“Lost time is never found again. So, seize the moment. And be thankful that God has blessed us to live and serve in America’s liberty outpost, the free state of Florida,” he said.
During most of the speech, DeSantis stuck to his campaign planks and lit into the Biden administration for “economic problems stemming from reckless federal policies, especially the most sustained inflation our country has witnessed in decades.”
He has proposed reducing the state gas tax by $1 billion during next fiscal year to compensate for higher fuel prices.
DeSantis persuaded the Legislature to pass “anti-riot” legislation following the Black Lives matter summer of protest in 2020. This year, he seeks pay increases of as much as 25 percent for cops plus signing bonuses for officers joining police forces for the first time or from out of state.
“Florida is a law and order state,” he said. “We will not allow law enforcement to be defunded, bail to be eliminated, criminals to be prematurely released from prison or prosecutors to ignore the law.”
He criticized the Biden administration for “staggering amounts of illegal migration and a massive influx of narcotics like fentanyl. Rather than defend our sovereignty and enforce the border, the federal government has released hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens to communities across the U.S., shipping them to Florida at alarming rates, including by sending clandestine flights in the dark of night.”
He asked lawmakers to punish entities the federal government uses to transport and house asylum seekers by authorizing restitution claims against them and denial of state contracts. He’s also asking for money to ship these people to other states.
“As a state, we cannot be a party to what is effectively a massive human smuggling operation run by the federal government,” DeSantis said.
Speaking of elections, DeSantis asked the Legislature to approve an “election integrity unit” that will “facilitate the faithful enforcement of election laws and will provide Floridians with the confidence that their vote will matter.” He wants to make “ballot harvesting” — collecting and delivering ballots on behalf of elderly and disabled people — a felony.
“It is Orwellian doublespeak to invoke the concept of “Voting rights” to mean ballot harvesting, or prohibiting voter ID or having taxpayer funding of elections. Those are political concepts that erode the integrity of our elections,” he said.
Other topics included workforce education for young adults who don’t want to go to college and opposition to tuition increases for those who do; continued funding increases for environmental protection; and support for abortion restrictions.
He didn’t think the Legislature should wait until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. Similar legislation for Florida emerged on Tuesday morning.
“I think that there’s a lot of pro-life legislation. You know, we’re going to be welcoming it. I haven’t looked at every single bill. I think if you look at, you know, what’s been done in some of those other states, when you start talking about, you know, 15 weeks, where you have really serious pain and heartbeats and all this stuff, you know, having protections I think is something that makes a lot of sense,” he said.
And, in calling for an “appropriate memorial” to the lives lost in the Surfside condo collapse, DeSantis chose perhaps an unfortunate Psalm: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he saves those whose spirits are crushed.”
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