Calling the 2021 legislative session “the year of big government,” Florida Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Nikki Fried called on Gov. Ron DeSantis Tuesday to veto eight bills that she said ignore the needs of Floridians but curry favor with conservative voters ahead of DeSantis’ likely presidential run.
“The governor’s priorities are whatever helps him become president in 2024,” Fried said during a press conference in the Florida Capitol. Fried, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, is a prospective candidate to run against DeSantis when he first seeks re-election as governor in 2022.
“This legislative session was a year of big government overreach into Floridians’ private lives and constitutional rights as Americans. Our state government believes if you don’t like how they’re running this state, it’s too bad — because they don’t care, don’t want to hear from you in the streets, and don’t want to hear from you at the ballot box,” Fried said.
Bills that Fried condemned Tuesday include some of DeSantis’ stated top priorities for 2021, including the newly signed law formerly known as House Bill 1, described by its allies as a crackdown on rioters and by its critics as an assault on the right to join peaceful protests against racial injustice.
HB 1’s supporters argue it will fend off the kind of violence that erupted sporadically during last summer’s nationwide wave of protests after the police murder of George Floyd. Critics insist it will not deter rioters at all, since rioting and looting already are crimes in Florida.
Instead, the critics contend, it will stifle peaceful protests by threatening arrest, jail time, fines, and imprisonment for being present at an event where any disorder occurs, even if they had nothing to do with it.
Another DeSantis priority was passage of Senate Bill 90, a package of voting changes that he and the bill’s Republican sponsors said would put “guardrails” on election laws that led to Florida’s 2020 elections being widely hailed as exemplary.
Critics say the changes are part of a nationwide Republican attack on voting by mail, a practice that surged during mid-pandemic elections and in Florida was widely used by Democrats — more so than by Republicans — for the first time in decades.
“Health and wealth”
Fried also denounced DeSantis and Republican leaders for pushing legislation banning local governments from adopting regulations to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, including mask mandates, business closures, and carrying proof of vaccination to participate in certain public activities.
On the same day, Associated Industries of Florida, representing big business, praised the Legislature for banning those measures, saying they interfere with commerce and slow economic recovery after a declared state of emergency.
“Because businesses were hit hard by the pandemic, this year AIF strongly advocated for legislation that would protect and support employers and keep our state on the path to prosperity,” said Tom Feeney, AIF’s president and CEO, in a statement to the press. “Florida lawmakers listened and took action this session to pass meaningful legislation to address some of the top concerns of the business community.”
Florida TaxWatch, in an April 21 analysis, also endorsed limits on public health restrictions as good for Florida’s economy, but added a significant caveat about weighing health against wealth:
“It should be noted at the onset that this correlation test does not seek to measure the relationship between state COVID-19 restrictions and resulting public health outcomes, such as death rates. Rather, the test merely seeks to analyze the relationship from an economic standpoint,” the report says.
“The emergence of more contagious virus strains coupled with an imprecise timeline for widespread herd immunity means the ‘health and wealth’ tradeoffs debate will continue for the foreseeable future.”
As for Fried, she also blasted Republican leaders for not raising unemployment insurance benefits for hundreds of thousands of Floridians who are jobless due to COVID. The GOP-controlled Legislature declined to approve any increase in benefits, the lowest in the nation at a maximum of $275 weekly for no more than 12 weeks.
The Republican majority also voted in Senate Bill 50, already signed into law, to dedicate new revenue from online sales taxes not to raise jobless benefits but to replenish the drawn-down unemployment insurance trust fund to avoid triggering higher payroll taxes paid by businesses.
“SB 50 is one of many bills that should have never passed and should have never been signed,” Fried said, calling it a $1 billion tax increase on Floridians who shop online and a break for big businesses that should replenish the trust fund themselves.
State power over local governments
While denouncing DeSantis’ swift signing of House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 50, Fried called on the governor to veto Senate Bill 90 and these others, which he had not yet been signed as of Tuesday afternoon:
- House Bill 919: Preventing local communities from restricting the use of fossil fuels in converting to clean energy.
- Senate Bill 896: Banning local communities from blocking construction of industrial-scale energy facilities in their midst.
- Senate Bill 426, tacked onto a transportation omnibus bill: Overturning three local referenda adopted by Key West voters in November to limit the size of cruise ships making port there, limit the number of passengers that disembark daily, and giving preference to ships with the best environmental records.
- Senate 430: Preempting regulations on gas pumps that Fried said protect consumers from gas-pump skimmers that steal credit-card data at the pump.
- Senate Bill 1028: Banning transgender children from participating in girls’ school sports, regardless that the NCAA consequently has threatened to cancel its athletic tournaments in Florida.