Gov. Ron DeSantis gave two starkly different views of Florida during his State of the State speech on Tuesday, one part scary and the other, in his mind, rejuvenating.
Opening the 2021 session of the Florida Legislature, DeSantis portrayed a state under imminent danger from street mobs, Chinese spies, threats to election integrity, and the “insane fantasy of defunding law enforcement.”
“We will not allow our cities to burn and violence to rule the streets. And we will not leave any doubt in the minds of those who wear the uniform that the state of Florida stands with you,” he said.
“To paraphrase an old Merle Haggard song, when you mess with the men and women in law enforcement you are walking on the fightin’ side of me.”
On the other hand, the governor asserted that he has led Florida through the COVID-19 pandemic relatively well. His resistance to pressure to lock down the economy after lifting the initial stay-home order he issued in the spring kept people in jobs, earning paychecks, and kids in school classrooms.
“Economic lock-downs are a luxury of the largely affluent Zoom class; many Floridians cannot do their jobs over a computer; they need to show up,” the governor said.
“There are not a whole lot of Floridians who are itching to move from Florida to lock-down states, but there are thousands and thousands of people who are seeking to leave the lock-downs behind for the greener pastures in Florida.”
DeSantis expressed “sadness” at the deaths of thousand of Floridians from COVID-19, and said he planned to lower the flags outside state building to half staff on Wednesday.
The agenda that emerged from the roughly 30-minute speech was this: tougher penalties for street demonstrations that get out of hand; a crackdown on the Big Tech platforms Republicans like DeSantis accuse of quashing their speech; countermeasures to Chinese “espionage” at state universities; and “election integrity” reforms that would make it harder to vote remotely.
Not much, then, to appeal to legislative Democrats, who are fielding bills this year that would reform policing, bolster social services and health care, and fix an unemployment compensation system that broke under the pressure of the COVID emergency. DeSantis had not much to say on those scores — although he did call for higher spending on environmental protection and to continue his push for higher pay for beginning teachers.
Leading Democrats called the speech “tone deaf.” Senate Democratic leader Gary Farmer of Broward County said the GOP agenda “does nothing to help the average Floridian. It’s a one-sided, big-money game of winners and losers in which the people are not invited to play.”
The 60-day session opened under extraordinary conditions designed to prevent transmission of the coronavirus. House members, senators, staff, and press covering the session were required to undergo COVID testing. The “joint session” was in name only — senators remained in their chamber rather than crowd into the House chamber.
Gone from the rotunda between the chambers was the usual swarm of lobbyists. Powerful air filters were positioned on the House and Senate floors.
However, some of the House members in the front of the chamber — where the Republican majority sits — ignored advice to wear face masks.
Speaking of COVID, DeSantis stood his ground on keeping the economy open.
“Friends, legislators, and Floridians, lend me your ears: We will not let anybody close your schools, we will not let anybody close your businesses, and we will not let anybody take your jobs!,” he said.
“The failure of so many places outside of Florida to open schools at the beginning of the school year will go down as one of the biggest policy blunders of our time,” the governor continued.
“Florida did not make that mistake though. We followed the data and stood by our parents and students. We ignored the political posturing and fear-mongering and did what was right for Floridians.”
Keeping the economy opened has softened the pandemic’s hit to state tax revenues, DeSantis argued, adding that the intake has exceeded the December estimate by some $800,000.
That means the Legislature should accept DeSantis’ request to continue raising teacher pay and finance environmental programs including Everglades restoration and shoring up the state’s coasts against rising seas, he said.
“I reject reductions in funding for K-12 education. Last session, the Legislature answered my call to increase the average minimum salary for teachers, taking Florida from the bottom half of states to the top five. Let us keep this momentum going — let us do more this year.”
Then he turned to the culture war. DeSantis appeared to suggest that Florida largely avoided the violence that attended the George Floyd protests last summer because he organized the National Guard, the Florida Highway Patrol, and local officials to prevent that possibility.
He called pending legislation that would beef up penalties for street disturbances “the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement reforms in the nation,”
The governor added: “We will not permit localities to jeopardize the safety of their citizens by indulging in the insane fantasy of defunding law enforcement. We will not allow our cities to burn and violence to rule the streets.”
Regarding Big Tech, DeSantis repeated his earlier complaints that social media platforms and other services had cut off Trump and other figures on the right wing and were abusing Floridians’ personal data for profit.
That happened because Trump and his supporters were spreading falsehoods about the election contrary to the providers’ terms of service.
“Florida has always been a state that strongly supports free speech, and we cannot allow the contours of acceptable speech to be adjudicated by the whims of oligarchs in Silicon Valley.” DeSantis said.
“Finally, because Florida is dedicated to free and fair elections, we cannot allow Big Tech to interfere in our elections by putting a thumb on the scale for political candidates favored by Silicon Valley.”
DeSantis acknowledged that Florida “ran perhaps the most transparent and efficient election in the country in 2020” but still needs to adopt GOP-backed legislation limiting mail-in ballots, ballot drop boxes, and so-called “ballot harvesting,” or allowing organizations to gather completed, sealed ballots from people who can’t make it to the polls.
These are all methods Democratic used more than Republicans did last year because they were reluctant than their GOP counterparts to vote in person during the pandemic.
Trump falsely attached these methods to the big lie that he had won the election.
DeSantis also voiced support for House Speaker Chris Sprowls’ proposals to combat efforts by “the Chinese Communist Party and other foreign influence” to steal technical and trade secrets from Florida universities and other institutions; and for legislation making it harder to sue businesses or medical providers over COVID exposure.