By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — It wasn’t the most important issue or event of 2019.
But a little more than a week after Gov. Ron DeSantis took office, he held a news conference in Central Florida that removed any doubt the Rick Scott era was over.
Flanked by Congressman Matt Gaetz, a favorite of President Donald Trump, and trial lawyer John Morgan, a backer of Hillary Clinton, DeSantis gave lawmakers an ultimatum to eliminate a ban on smokable medical marijuana.
In doing so, he suggested the Legislature passed a law that failed to properly carry out a 2016 constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana for patients with a variety of conditions.
“Whether they have to smoke it or not, who am I to judge that? I want people to be able to have their suffering relieved. I don’t think this law is up to snuff,” DeSantis said.
The news conference, which ultimately led to lawmakers repealing the ban on smokable marijuana, sent a clear message of change.
First, it is hard to imagine the buttoned-down Scott ever holding a news conference with Gaetz and Morgan, two provocateurs who love to make splashes in social media, on cable news and on billboards. But it also was a departure on policy from Scott, whose administration had fought in court to maintain the ban on smokable marijuana.
Change, of course, is inevitable when a new governor is elected. Republican Jeb Bush completely changed state government after he was elected in 1998 to succeed Democrat Lawton Chiles. Republicans have won every subsequent gubernatorial election, but each new governor has installed new people, brought new ideas and had a new style.
In 2019, however, the change brought by DeSantis was the most important story in state government and politics. During his Jan. 8 inauguration address, DeSantis praised Scott, who was elected to the U.S. Senate last year, for leaving a “strong foundation” but also pointed toward what was to come.
“It now falls to me to build upon the foundation that has been laid, navigate the challenges — economic, environmental, constitutional — that lie ahead, and steer Florida to a stronger, cleaner and safer future,” DeSantis said.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE …
Perhaps the most far-reaching change of DeSantis’ first year was purely a matter of timing.
DeSantis during his first weeks in office was able to appoint three justices — Barbara Lagoa, Robert Luck and Carlos Muniz — to the Florida Supreme Court. The appointments cemented a conservative majority on a court that had long been a source of frustration for Republicans.
Lagoa, Luck and Muniz replaced justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, who were forced to step down in January because of a mandatory retirement age. Pariente, Lewis and Quince had been part of a generally liberal majority that over the years foiled priorities of the Republican-dominated Legislature, business groups and social conservatives.
After being appointed by DeSantis to the state’s high court, Lagoa and Luck were tapped by Trump in September for seats on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. While that might temporarily slow the changes at the Supreme Court, DeSantis has left no doubt that he will replace Lagoa and Luck with like-minded conservatives.
Addressing The Federalist Society’s National Lawyers Convention in November, DeSantis said the possibility of reshaping the court was one of the reasons he ran for governor, labeling the “activist majority” on the court as “one of kind of the thorns in the side” of Republican leaders’ policymaking efforts. He also said he intended to reinforce the Supreme Court’s conservative majority with replacements for Luck and Lagoa.
“I think that we are on a good path,” the governor told members of the conservative legal group. “I think we’ve got a lot of great people, so as good as Barbara and Bobby Luck have been, I don’t know if I’ll quite get to that level, but we’ll get pretty close.”
DeSantis’ move into the governor’s office overlapped with Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, fully taking control of their legislative chambers. With the support of solid Republican majorities — and backing from DeSantis — Galvano and Oliva were able to push through their priorities during the spring legislative session.
Galvano, for example, got approval of a plan designed to lead to three new or extended toll roads in the state. The projects would expand the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area to Jefferson County at the northern end of Florida; extend the Florida Turnpike west to connect with the Suncoast Parkway; and add a new multi-use corridor, including a toll road, from Polk County to Collier County.
Galvano has described the roads as a “new approach” in planning the state’s future, reducing congestion, providing alternate hurricane evacuation routes and offering a way to revitalize rural communities through the expansion of broadband, water and sewer infrastructure.
“We have to live in a state and have to plan in the state for the future. We cannot continue just to remediate. We have to anticipate the future needs of this state,” Galvano said.
But the projects have drawn opposition from many environmentalists, who contend the toll roads would lead to sprawling development and damage to ecosystems and wildlife.
“We’re not saying no to progress, we’re just trying to define progress in a different way that more reflects what the communities on the ground want,” Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council, said in early December.
Oliva, meanwhile, has been a major proponent of revamping the health-care system to reduce regulations and to create more of a free market. Such changes have been politically difficult over the years, at least in part because of competing interests in the health-care industry.
During this spring’s session, however, Oliva was able to push through a series of changes, including elimination of the long-controversial “certificate of need” regulatory process for hospitals. Under that process, hospitals needed state approval before undertaking such things as construction projects.
Oliva also was a key supporter of a plan by DeSantis that is aimed at importing lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada and other countries.
During a speech at the beginning of the session, Oliva described the issue of health care in the state as a “five-alarm fire” and took aim at hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.
“Floridians are depending on us to remedy this crisis,” Oliva said.
THE MORE THEY REMAIN THE SAME …
When Floridians went to the polls in November 2018, they passed a constitutional amendment that called for restoring the voting rights of felons who have completed terms of their sentences.
The amendment, known as Amendment 4, came after years of political and legal battles about whether the state was unfairly disenfranchising felons who had done their time. More broadly, it came amid seemingly never-ending disputes between Republicans and Democrats about voting and elections issues.
But while everybody seems to agree on the basic premise of Amendment 4 — restoring the rights of felon who have completed terms of their sentences — the issue has turned into the latest battleground about voting.
The dispute focuses on a law that the Legislature passed to carry out the amendment. The law requires felons to pay “legal financial obligations,” such as restitution, fines and fees, to be eligible to have voting rights restored.
Republican lawmakers contend the law properly carries out the amendment’s requirement of felons completing terms of their sentences, but critics liken it to a poll tax that will keep many felons from having their rights restored.
The result is that the state and voting-rights and civil-rights groups are battling in court again, with the March presidential primary elections fast approaching.
Amendment 4 spurred one of the noisiest debates during this year’s legislative session, along with issues such as allowing public-school teachers to serve as armed “guardians,” banning so-called sanctuary cities and expanding school vouchers.
On each of those issues, the Republican majority passed legislation over the objections of Democrats, who have not controlled either chamber of the Legislature since the 1990s.
The armed teacher debate, for example, involved expanding a school-safety law that passed after the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. A 2018 law created the guardian program to allow arming school employees whose primary duties were outside classrooms; the measure this year expanded that to teachers.
Democrats spent hours railing against the plan.
“Here we are, one year later, and for some reason the carefully crafted compromise that agonized all of us has just been completely abandoned and tossed out the window,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said.
But supporters of the proposal argued that allowing teachers to have guns could make a life-saving difference in the time it takes for law enforcement to arrive during active-shooter situations.
“This is not about gun rights or anything like that. This is about keeping our children safe and, when all other things fail, that there is a last line of defense to save our children. And it’s nothing more than that,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said.
Despite their policy defeats, Democrats had one bright spot this year, with Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried getting sworn into office after winning the Cabinet post in November 2018. Otherwise, Democrats continued to remain largely powerless in Tallahassee.
With the 2020 elections coming up — and Trump on the ballot — they hope to change that dynamic. Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Penalosa said in an interview with The News Service of Florida this month that the party has had “heartbreaking losses” in recent years, but it has a strategy to win races in 2020.
“We’ve also learned our lessons from ’18, ’16 and ’14, and we’re going back to our winning playbook, which is investing early, building the infrastructure you need to win and create the electorate that you want, not the one that the polling says you have,” Penalosa said. “That is what we did with the Obama coalition and that’s what we’re doing now even without a candidate at the top of the ticket.”
STORY OF THE YEAR: Gov. Ron DeSantis took office in January, spurring widespread changes in state government and politics.
QUOTES OF THE YEAR:
“I believe the rule of law is society’s sacred bond. When it is trampled, we all suffer. For the Groveland Four, the truth was buried. The perpetrators celebrated. But justice has cried out from that day until this.” — Gov. Ron DeSantis, in January after pardoning Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin and Charles Greenlee, who were known as the Groveland Four.
“We really don’t know what we’re doing.” — Rep. Ralph Massullo, a dermatologist, referring in February to a lack of scientific research about the effects of smoking medical marijuana on patients.
“The whole program was really a stimulus in some ways for Tallahassee because I think PhRMA hired every lobbyist in town to try to lobby against this stuff.” — Gov. Ron DeSantis, referring to the pharmaceutical industry’s unsuccessful attempt to kill a bill that would allow importing prescription drugs from Canada.
“It is going to happen again. Anybody who thinks it’s not going to happen again is just being unrealistic, is being naïve and probably has their head in the sand. It is going to happen again.” — Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, about the inevitability of another school shooting.
“Looking at that hole in the ceiling, I was thinking, where can I be safe? I really thought I was going to die.” — Rodrick Fagiole, a former inmate at Gulf Correctional Institution, who said he watched the eye of Hurricane Michael pass over the prison after the storm ripped off a part of the roof.
“Maybe the president thinks he is helping with tariffs and trade wars, but, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and his agenda has been a path to perdition for Florida farmers.” — Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.
“What are the alternatives? A shot of whiskey and a leather belt to bite down on?” — Florida Board of Medicine lawyer Ed Tellechea, during a discussion about a new law requiring doctors to inform patients of alternatives to opioids before administering anesthesia or prescribing or administering opioids.
“Looks like the governor’s mansion will have to stay baby-proofed for a little while longer.” — Gov. Ron DeSantis on announcing in September that First Lady Casey DeSantis is pregnant with their third child.
“As I’ve said before, he was not the right man for the job. The systemic failures were exposed in Parkland but could have easily affected any other city in Broward that use the services of the sheriff’s office while he was in command.” — Tony Montalto, whose daughter, Gina, was among the 17 students and staff members slain during the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Montalto spoke after the Senate voted 25-15 in October to strip former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel of his post.
“The organizing principle of the Trump Republican party is fear. And specifically, for a great many of them, not all of them, white fright. That’s why his race-baiting and that’s why the immigration wedge issue worked so well for him. It plays into that anger, anxiety, envy, that are characteristic of his base.” — Republican operative J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, who was part of the “Never Trump” movement and in December announced his retirement from the Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney lobbying firm.