Lawmakers who attended White House ceremony during session had permission slips

Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted this photo of himself in Washington flanked by state lawmakers attending the announcement of the White House peace plan for the Middle East.

Florida lawmakers who played hooky from the Legislative session to attend the unveiling of President Trump’s Middle East peace plan at the White House did so with leave from their presiding officers, aides said Wednesday.

As House and Senate committees on Tuesday debated weighty matters including abortion, teacher pay, water policy, the state prison crisis, occupational licenses, guns, and compensation for student athletes, it seemed a sizeable slice of Florida’s Republican leaders were hobnobbing with the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s close to Trump politically, was there too, and tweeted out a photo of himself flanked by Senate Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benaquisto of Fort Meyers; Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley of Orange Park; Senate President-designate Wilton Simpson of Trilby; and Commerce and Tourism Chairman Joe Gruters (who’s also chairman of the state GOP) of Sarasota.

Also shown was Randy Fine of Brevard County, chairman of the Florida House Subcommittee on Higher Education Appropriations.

Another tweeted picture included Rep. Jason Fischer of Duval County, alternating chairman of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, and Keith Perry of Gainesville, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Here’s another shot.

Communications aides to the governor had no response to a request for comment about travel arrangements. Senate President Bill Galvano’s spokeswoman, Katie Betta, said he gave the senators the day off. The Senate didn’t organize the excursion, she said, so she couldn’t address any travel arrangements.

As for the absence of committee leaders, the Senate has a coping mechanism. “A committee chair can delegate the responsibility to chair a meeting to the vice chair or any other member of the committee,” Betta said by email.

Fred Piccolo, spokesman for House Speaker Jose Oliva, said via email that the House didn’t pay travel expenses.

He forwarded copies of letters from Fine and Fischer seeking permission to make the trip. Fine’s letter to Oliva mentions an invitation from the “President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the State of Israel” and notes that Vice Chairman James Grant of Tampa would fill in during a subcommittee meeting.

Fischer’s letter to Business & Professions Subcommittee chair Heather Fitzenhagen (he’s a member) mentions “a personal matter that needs my attention.”

Neither legislative spokesperson had responded as of this writing to a follow-up question regarding whether the missing members drew their per diem pay.

DeSantis has gone out of his way to signal support for Israel – all the way to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, as a matter of fact, cities he visited during a major economic development and cultural mission that included Florida Cabinet members and a sizeable delegation of business, political, and academic leaders last spring. They included Fine.

Fischer was in Israel as recently as November, on a visit organized by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Update: Senators who attended the event did not receive their per diem payments, according to Betta. “They would not receive session subsistence for time they were not in Tallahassee,” she said.