State of the State: DeSantis keeps pressure on to keep moving right; ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’

‘Party of supposed limited government has developed a taste for control’

By: - March 7, 2023 5:54 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers the State of the State address for the 2023 legislative session on Mar. 7, 2023. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

Legislative Republicans were ebullient as the Florida House and Senate gathered in joint session Tuesday to open the 60-day regular session. They now enjoy supermajorities in both chambers, and Gov. Ron DeSantis, their unquestioned leader, is a strong contender for president in 2024.

Yet DeSantis’ State of the State address, his yearly report to the Legislature and presentation of his agenda for the session, sounded a lot like the stump speech he’s been delivering in states like California and Texas as he promotes his presidential campaign biography: full of his usual attacks on “woke” activism and bragging about Florida’s prosperity under his stewardship.

So, there was puffery like this:

“Florida is number one and working together we will ensure that Florida remains the number one state in these United States.”

“We defied the experts, we buck the elites, we ignored the chatter, we did it our way, the Florida way. And the result is that we are the number one destination for our fellow Americans who are looking for a better life.”

And there was a whole list of areas in which DeSantis claimed Florida leads the nation — without specifying his data.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo. Credit: Florida Senate

GOP members ate it up, interrupting throughout with applause.

“Our governor is truly America’s governor,” Senate President Kathleen Passidomo said during her own opening day speech.

“He has defended our conservative values, challenged the individuals and institutions who pose threats to others, and introduced innovative solutions to better our state. It is often said that states are laboratories for democracy. Under the leadership of Gov. DeSantis, Florida is more than a laboratory, we are the model,” she said.

House Speaker Paul Renner, meanwhile, called DeSantis “America’s greatest governor.”

For his own part, DeSantis never uttered the word “woke” during his roughly 30-minute address — a word he uses to sneer at progressive activism including diversity efforts; transgender-rights advocacy; and the use of ESG — environmental, social, and governance — considerations in investment decisions. He didn’t mention all of these projects by name during his speech but is asking the Legislature to clamp down on them this session.

He proposed one initiative after another that would be inimical to progressives.

“But now’s not the time to rest on our laurels. We have the opportunity and indeed the responsibility to swing for the fences so that we can ensure Florida remains number one,” DeSantis said.

“Don’t worry about the chattering class. Ignore all the background noise. Keep the compass set to true north. We will stand strong. We will hold the line. We won’t back down. And I can promise you this, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

‘Unchecked power’

Democrats countered that DeSantis’ power has gone to his head, leading him to bully corporations like The Walt Disney Co., trans kids, and women seeking abortions — even Republicans too cowed by his popularity to say “no” to bad ideas.

“The party of supposed limited government has developed a taste for control, and with it, an aversion to accountability,” Lauren Book, leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said in written remarks.

“Hiding behind a brand of ‘freedom’ I don’t recognize, while the governor amasses nearly unchecked power. We must ALL pay attention to what’s happening over the next 60 days because, under the current state of affairs, things have already gone both too far,” Book said.

Sen. Lauren Book, Senate Democratic Leader. Credit: screenshot/Florida Channel.

The Florida Democratic Party issued its own written statement, noting: “Today, Ron DeSantis delivered his State of the State address to kick off a legislative session designed to rubber stamp his extreme agenda. With supermajorities in the House and Senate to do his bidding, DeSantis has pushed increasingly extreme proposals in the Legislature in order to start winning over the MAGA base ahead of a potential 2024 run.”

The party pointed to the proposed six-week abortion ban legislation introduced as DeSantis spoke Tuesday plus his support for a “constitutional carry” gun-rights bill.

The governor said during a post-speech news conference that he’d cut short his remarks because his young son Mason was growing antsy sitting in the House gallery with First Lady Casey DeSantis, but that he’d support open-carry language but also would accept a bill requiring concealment of firearms. Open carry refers to the practice of carrying openly visible firearms in public.

“I’m going to sign what they do. So, if they do a permitless bill and that gets to my desk, I’m not going to veto that because it didn’t necessarily include everything I want.”

Leaders’ initiatives

DeSantis expressed support during his speech for Passidomo’s affordable-housing initiative.

He was ostensibly friendly to Renner’s “universal school choice” plan, which would make existing taxpayer support for private school tuition available to everyone, including millionaires and billionaires.

Florida House Speaker Paul Renner. Credit: Mitch Perry.

“I think there’s a philosophical interest among some to say, everybody, universal, money follows the student. I get that and philosophically I’m not even opposed to that. But you’ve got to make choices about, okay, how much money are you going to do for people already in private school? … Are you going to send them a scholarship, too?” he told reporters.

“We’re in a situation now in Florida, we have a limited number of seats that we can even accommodate in private schools. I’d like to see the focus remain on poor- to low-income.”

However, DeSantis repudiated a bill that would force political bloggers to register with the state and report financial contributions they’ve received.

“That’s not anything that I’ve ever supported. I don’t support it,” he said during his news conference.

And he cautioned that legislators are free to file bills he might not like.

“They have independent agency to be able to do things. Like, I don’t control every single bill that’s been filed or amended. So, as we go through the session, please understand that.”

‘Boldness be our friend’

In his speech, DeSantis pointed to last year’s election, which saw him reelected by 19 points and the new GOP supermajorities in the House and Senate.

“November’s election results represent a vindication of our joint efforts over these past four years. The results also vest in us the responsibility to lead and provide us the opportunity to shoot for the stars,” he said.

“Boldness be our friend in this endeavor. We have a lot we need to accomplish.”

In terms of what DeSantis wants the Legislature to do this session, he praised his proposed $2 billion tax cut package as “the largest tax cut package in Florida history,” including lifting the sales tax on baby supplies including diapers and cribs.

“We are proud to be pro-family and we are proud to be pro-life in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said.

He urged passage of legislation targeting pharmacy benefits managers, which companies that act as middlemen in the pharmaceutical markets; a tort reform package intended to make it harder to sue insurance companies and hopefully lower premiums; and tougher penalties for fentanyl dealers.

Extend mask, vax protections

The governor noted that protections he pushed through the Legislature against COVID mask and vaccine mandates are set to end soon.

“Permanent protection from medical authoritarianism should not have an expiration date in the Free State of Florida,” he said.

“We also need to protect the free speech rights and conscience rights of physicians. The medical establishment whiffed an awful lot during COVID and physicians who follow the evidence should not be penalized simply because they buck a stale consensus.”

Protesters outside a Florida Board of Medicine hearing on restricting trans care, Aug. 5, 2022. Credit: Brooke Baitinger

He urged support for banning transgender care for minors, including puberty blockers and surgery. “It’s sad that we have to say this, but our children are not guinea pigs for science experimentation, and we cannot allow people to make money off mutilating them,” DeSantis said. (Prevailing medical opinion is that such treatments can prevent trans kids from killing themselves.)

Additionally, DeSantis called for further restrictions on undocumented immigrants, including tighter job screening, plus a state ban on cashless bail for criminal suspects.

“We believe that borders matter and we have fought against illegal immigration in the state of Florida from banning sanctuary cities to suing the Biden administration over its catch and release policies to transporting illegal aliens to sanctuary jurisdictions. We have put Floridians first and we will continue to do that,” he said.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.