By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
While focusing heavily on now-familiar priorities such as the environment and education, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday used his first State of the State address to emphasize a need to take “bold” action.
In a 34-minute speech to lawmakers gathered in a joint session in the flower-filled House chamber, DeSantis touted issues that he has discussed during appearances across the state since taking office Jan. 8. They included efforts to improve water quality, expand school choice and prevent so-called sanctuary cities.
He repeatedly used the word “bold” to describe his agenda and to urge lawmakers to take action.
“Let’s fight the good fight, let’s finish the race, let’s keep the faith so that when Floridians look back on the fruits of this session, they will see it as one of our state’s finest hours,” he said in the address, the traditional start to the 60-day legislative session.
DeSantis, a former Republican congressman, was elected in November without experience in Tallahassee. But since his inauguration, DeSantis has bounced across the state announcing policy priorities.
Some of his actions, such as an initiative to improve water quality, have generally received bipartisan support. That initiative came after parts of Southeast Florida and Southwest Florida were plagued by red tide and toxic algae last year. DeSantis quickly focused on the environmental efforts during the State of the State.
“Florida is blessed with some of the nation’s finest natural resources,” he said. “We’re the fishing and boating capital of the United States. Our beaches bring millions of tourists to our state each and every year. The state’s unique natural environment is central to our economy, our quality of life and our identity as Floridians. I’m proud to have taken swift and bold action to protect our natural resources and improve Florida’s water quality.”
But other priorities have been more controversial, with DeSantis’ push to expand school vouchers likely to spur a major debate during the session. To make the issue more personal, DeSantis on Tuesday introduced Shareka Wright, an Orlando garbage-truck driver and single mother of three who could benefit from expanded school choice programs.
“We are a big, diverse state, and one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to education,” DeSantis said. “Let’s stand with working moms like Shareka and empower them to choose the best learning environment for their kids.”
Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said in a televised response to the State of the State address that DeSantis should focus on providing high quality education in public schools.
“While the governor says his plan is about helping kids get a better education, especially disadvantaged kids, make no mistake about it, the plan is all about draining millions of your tax dollars to give to private schools, while dismembering public education in the state of Florida where the accountability and transparency parents seek and expect is already built into the public school system,” Gibson said. “None of these factors are guaranteed in publicly funded private schools because none of it is required.”
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, said DeSantis also is not adequately addressing issues such as climate change and access to health care.
“When it comes to most water policy, the governor has taken concrete steps to move us forward,” Rodriguez said. “Everywhere else, he has either continued bad policy or signaled that he’d like to, on the most important issues in our state.”
But with Republicans holding a massive majority in the House and a solid majority in the Senate, Democrats have relatively little power to block DeSantis’ agenda — if he can nail down support from Republicans. At least in some areas, such as expanding school choice, he appears to have support in both chambers.
Similarly, DeSantis’ controversial push to ban “sanctuary cities” has already started moving forward in the Senate. The push is intended to ensure local governments in Florida comply with requests from federal immigration authorities.
DeSantis on Tuesday cited a Jacksonville couple, Bobby and Kiyan Michael, whose son was killed by someone who was in the country illegally after being deported twice, the governor said.
“Florida will not be a sanctuary state — we will not allow someone here illegally to commit criminal misconduct and simply be returned to our communities.,” DeSantis said. “And we won’t tolerate sanctuary cities that actively frustrate law enforcement by shielding criminal aliens from accountability at the expense of public safety.”
— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.