Combative DeSantis calls GOP to culture war arms

DeSantis used his State of the State address to preview the conservative agenda he wants to present to voters.
FILE — Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis takes to the stage to debate his Democratic opponent Charlie Crist in Fort Pierce, Fla., on Oct. 24, 2022. (Crystal Vander Weit/TCPalm.com via AP, Pool, File)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) used his State of the State address Tuesday to call on the Republican-led legislature to enact a wish list of conservative priorities, including allowing residents to carry firearms without a permit and banning minors from receiving gender-affirming treatments. 

“We find ourselves in Florida on the front lines in the battle for freedom,” DeSantis told lawmakers.

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

DeSantis’ war on so-called ‘woke policies’ has turned the two-term Florida governor into a favorite among Republican voters as the 2024 presidential contest slowly begins in earnest, rivaling only former President Donald Trump. A poll last month showed DeSantis trailing Trump nationally by just six points — and DeSantis has not yet formally kicked off his campaign, though he has traveled the country giving speeches in a run-up to an expected run. 

The legislature is poised to consider a permitless carry bill and legislation to ban transgender minors from gender-affirming care. Both measures stand a strong chance of passage since Republicans hold more than a two-thirds majority in the state House and Senate following the midterm elections last year. 

Florida would become the 26th state to allow permitless carry if the bill becomes law.

DeSantis touted his crime and public-safety record, arguing that Florida had a 50-year low crime rate. He contrasted those figures with Democratic-run states, like Illinois, which have passed legislation to end of cash bail. 

The Illinois law is being challenged in court and required legislative modifications in order to address issues with the statute.

“We also need to ensure that our bail system is conducive to public safety,” the governor said. “Dangerous criminals should not simply be put back on the street like we see what happens in states that have gone so far as to abolish cash bail entirely. A police officer should not have to repeatedly risk his life to apprehend the same criminal over and over again.”

DeSantis said he opposed Chinese-backed companies buying land in Florida, but did not specifically call for legislation. His comments track with those of others in GOP-led states that are considering legislation to block foreign ownership of land. 

“We see the [Chinese Communist Party] trying to make strategic land purchases across the U.S. and our message in Florida is very simple: We will not allow land grabs by CCP-backed businesses in our state.

In 2021, DeSantis signed legislation to prohibit specific agreements between state and public entities and Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. The measure was signed in an effort to ban the Confucius Institute, a Beijing-backed language and cultural learning center, from affiliation with Florida colleges. 

DeSantis pointed to $1 billion in tax relief in the current year’s budget, and cuts to tolls that he estimated would save families more than $1,000, as a solution for runaway inflation. 

In the budget he unveiled last month, DeSantis proposed $2 billion in tax cuts, including permanently eliminating sales tax on baby supplies such as diapers, wipes, clothes, cribs, and strollers.

“We will be able to say that in Florida having a child will be tax free,” DeSantis said. 

DeSantis also touted his education policies. He called for passage of his Teachers Bill of Rights proposal, which would raise the share of eligible employees that a school union must represent from 50% to 60%; allow state investigations into unions suspected of fraud, waste and abuse; and require annual audits and financial disclosures for unions.

The proposal would also reduce the terms for school boards to eight years from 12 and make school board elections partisan. The measure also includes $1 billion for teacher pay for the 2022-2023 year, an increase of $200 million from the prior year.

We must continue our momentum with K to 12 education by increasing teacher salaries and enacting a teacher’s Bill of Rights providing paycheck protection for teachers expanding school choice and fortifying parents rights, our schools must deliver a good education, not a political indoctrination,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis also highlighted a series of health care proposals. He said that laws barring mask mandates and other Covid-related rules enacted by the legislature would expire, so he wants to make them permanent. DeSantis asked lawmakers to pass a permanent ban on statewide mask mandates, banning mask and vaccine requirements in schools, barring vaccine passports in Florida and prohibiting employers from hiring and firing over Covid-19 vaccines. 

In their rebuttal, Senate Minority Leader Lauren Brook (D) and House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell (D) both took issue with DeSantis’ conception of freedom, which Driskel argued stemmed from his desire to “audition for his next job” as GOP presidential nominee.

“The party of supposed limited government has developed a taste for control, and with it an aversion to accountability, hiding behind a brand of freedom,” Brook said.

Both pointed to DeSantis’s rejection of Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.

“Florida is one of only 11 states that still rejects this federal money,” Driskel said. “This would reduce health care costs by millions of dollars and would be life changing for hundreds of thousands of our neighbors.”

They also argued that DeSantis is divisive and said his agenda does little if anything to help with the rising cost of living in the state.