| Sarasota Herald-Tribune
TALLAHASSEE – Defending his approach to keeping schools and businesses open during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis kicked off the 2021 legislative session Tuesday with a speech describing Florida as a “beacon of light” compared to other states and laying out a sharply conservative wish list for lawmakers.
In his roughly half-hour State of the State address, DeSantis recapped his performance over the past year with no second thoughts, instead saying that Florida had become the envy of residents of others states subject to tighter restrictions and in-person school closures.
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“There are not a whole lot of Floridians who are itching to move from Florida to lockdown states, but there are thousands and thousands of people who are seeking to leave the lockdowns for the greener pastures in Florida,” DeSantis told a joint session of the Florida Legislature in a Capitol still mostly closed to the public because of the pandemic.
“We have long been known as the Sunshine State – but given the unprecedented lockdowns we have witnessed in other states, I think the Florida sun now serves as a beacon of light to those who yearn for freedom,” he added.
More than 3 million Floridians have received a vaccine against COVID-19 in recent weeks while the state has reported 1.9 million virus cases over the past year – with about 31,000 deaths. The vaccine rollout has had its problems, with DeSantis accused of favoring Republican-leaning communities while minority vaccination rates trail those of white Floridians.
But DeSantis didn’t acknowledge such criticism. He did say that flags across the state will be lowered to half-staff Wednesday in honor of those who have died.
“We will not let anybody close your schools, we will not let anybody take your jobs and we will not let anybody close your businesses,” he said, drawing applause from lawmakers.
Democrats, though, said that DeSantis is tone deaf to the concerns faced by many Floridians, with most essential workers still unable to access vaccines and where virus case counts still hover around 5,000 a day.
“Now more than ever, Floridians demand our leaders come together to work on the shared problems we face,” said Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon, adding: “Instead of helping hardworking Floridians with commonsense solutions, we heard an agenda that was driven by pettiness, imaginary threats and settling partisan scores.”
DeSantis spoke to the Republican-controlled Legislature in opening the two-month session after a straw poll of attendees Sunday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando listed him as their favorite for president in 2024 – unless another run is made by former President Donald Trump.
And the governor is advancing a policy agenda this spring heavily laden with politics.
Backed by Republican leaders in the House and Senate, DeSantis is calling for a crackdown on big tech companies, tough penalties on protesters who turn violent – prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement last summer – and an elections overhaul, including restrictions on the use of mail ballots and drop boxes, even though voting went smoothly in Florida last November.
The state is facing a $2 billion budget shortfall, whose impact has been lessened by $4.7 billion in federal aid under the CARES Act. Billions more will be on the way, if the $1.9 trillion stimulus package pushed by President Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled Congress is approved in coming weeks.
DeSantis said the worst projections for the state’s budget did not come true. But he took much of the credit for maintaining state spending priorities.
“The bottom line is that we saved Florida’s economy and, as a result, our budget outlook is positive,” DeSantis said.
On Monday, DeSantis added to his wish list by endorsing wide-ranging legislation aimed at combatting foreign interference, particularly from China, in science, medicine and technology at Florida universities, public agencies and local governments.
The move comes after several Florida researchers were dismissed for profiting from Chinese collaborations at public universities and the Moffitt Cancer Center. But its unveiling also came just hours after Trump urged “standing up to China” in his address at CPAC.
“The governor is already looking for 2024,” said Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone elected statewide Democrat who is seen as a likely challenger to DeSantis in next year’s governor’s race.
“His eyes are already on what’s next for his political future,” she said. “And he’s not kept his eyes on Florida and where we need to go. You’re seeing that from the policies he’s pushing.”
Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer of Lighthouse Point said the governor’s priorities offer little for most Floridians.
“The governor and his legislative allies are actually trying to convince Floridians that they’ re the party of the people,” Farmer said. “But their actions tell another, very different story. Their legislation does nothing for the average working person.”
A poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, released Tuesday, shows DeSantis rebounding from a popularity slump in recent months, which had coincided with spikes in COVID-19 cases in Florida and the governor playing a visible role last summer and fall in support of Trump’s failed bid for a second term.
Mason-Dixon now found that 53% of Florida voters approve the governor’s job performance, compared with 42% disapproving and 5% undecided. While divided along party lines, the survey results show DeSantis still draws 15% approval marks from registered Democrats and strong 59% support from no party-affiliated voters.
With DeSantis expected to run for re-election next year, the survey reported him running well ahead of two possible Democratic challengers, Fried and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, a former Florida Republican governor. The phone survey of 625 registered voters was taken last week and has a 4% plus-or-minus margin of error.
Although critics including minority lawmakers and constitutional scholars have raised alarms about DeSantis’ call for new criminal penalties against protesters and going after Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies for de-platforming Trump and other conservatives, the governor defied such criticism in his State of the State speech.
“To paraphrase an old Merle Haggard song, when you mess with the men and women of law enforcement, you are walking on the fightin’ side of me,” DeSantis said of his so-called anti-mob legislation.
And while getting tough on demonstrators, the governor sees no conflict in his push to defend Trump and others punished by online platforms.
“Florida has always been a state that strongly supports free speech, and we cannot allow the contours of acceptance speech to be adjudicated by the whims of oligarchs in Silicon Valley,” DeSantis said.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the Capital Bureau, USA Today Network-Florida. He can be reached at email@example.com, 850-321-0572, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport.