TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WFLA/AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered the last State of the State speech of his first term as he seeks reelection and a possible 2024 presidential run.
DeSantis outlined a largely conservative agenda during Tuesday’s address. Policy goals ranged from attempts to prevent schools and businesses from teaching critical race theory to keeping undocumented immigrants from settling in Florida.
The governor painted the policy agenda as one focused on preserving Floridians’ freedoms, as other parts of the country “consigned the people’s rights to the grave.”
While three major Democrats are seeking to challenge DeSantis in November, the governor has paid little attention to them.
Instead, DeSantis has focused his criticism on President Joe Biden and the media, particularly when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic. DeSantis opposes vaccine and mask mandates and often describes Florida as a place for freedom, not lockdowns.
“These unprecedented policies have been as ineffective as they have been destructive,” DeSantis said. “They are grounded more in blind adherence to Faucian declarations than they are in the constitutional traditions that are the foundation of free nations.”
The governor called Florida the freest state in the union, one that has “reject[ed] the biomedical security state that curtails liberty, ruins livelihoods and divides society.”
DeSantis is recommending a budget of $99.7 billion for the coming year. The state budget, as laid out, has a more than $15 billion reserve, after state revenues exceeded estimates by billions of dollars during the past year. The governor said December revenues alone were more than $500 million higher than the latest monthly estimate had forecasted.
“And this is all being done with no income tax and the lowest per capita tax burden in America,” DeSantis said. “Job creation in Florida is far exceeding the national average. And our labor force has increased six times faster than the nation’s.”
The state leads the country in business formations, DeSantis said. Since he took office in 2019, the governor told the state legislature that new businesses forming had increased 61%. In 2021, the state saw 114,000 new businesses, which he said was even more than California, despite the western state’s 40% higher population size. The governor placed the reason for the high business level on the state’s freedoms, saying the economic success proved it.
“Freedom works. Our economy is the envy of the nation,” DeSantis said. “And the state is well-prepared to withstand future economic turmoil.”
Still, the governor said the country is facing economic problems, such as inflation and “reckless federal policies” that he said are burdening Florida’s families. To “help alleviate” the burden, DeSantis proposed a $1 billion gas tax holiday for 2022, to reduce prices for gasoline at the pump.
DeSantis is also focused on the state’s educational future, and how Florida will remain committed to keeping schools open and putting students first.
In the summer of 2020, when it wasn’t fashionable, we made clear that kids needed to be in school,” DeSantis said. “We faced opposition — from hysterical media, from unions and the politicians they control. We even faced lawsuits aiming to close the schools, but we wouldn’t allow fear or politics to harm our kids. We were right and they were wrong. And millions of families in Florida are better for it.”
Going over his education agenda for the legislative session, DeSantis reiterated plans to switch from the current Florida Standards Assessment to progress monitoring, in an effort to provide reform for students, teachers and parents with more meaningful feedback and giving more time for learning instead of testing.
Additionally, DeSantis promised to renew last year’s $1,000 bonus for teachers and promised another minimum salary increase for the state’s educators. The governor also took aim at curriculum, repeating his position on banning critical race theory from being taught in Florida schools.
“Our tax dollars should not be used to teach our kids to hate our country or to hate each other,” DeSantis said, calling it a principle policy of Florida’s education. Continuing his educational policy goals, DeSantis also pushed for making higher education more affordable for Florida families, and doubled down on saving the Bright Futures scholarships in the state and promised to oppose tuition increases at Florida colleges and universities.
The state is also expected to keep its commitment to vocational training for students, to provide a pathway to well-paying jobs needed in the state and national economy. DeSantis named “a variety of fields like aviation, logistics and welding,” saying they were “as valuable and as honorable endeavors as attending august universities, and they deserve our support.” He said the focus on skilled trades will help expand Florida’s manufacturing footprint and assist in competing with foreign countries for production and business, particularly as supply chain issues remain a national concern.
Rounding out the speech, DeSantis praised Florida’s law enforcement and promised continued support for the state’s agents and officers, in light of what he called a border crisis and “massive influx of narcotics,” such as fentanyl. He said Florida should not have to bear the federal government’s burdens as a result of their “lawless open border policies.” DeSantis also promised hiring bonuses and bigger salaries for law enforcement, as well as bonuses for those moving to Florida from out of state, a policy he’d introduced in 2021 as a goal to attract police officers to move to the Sunshine State.
Turning to voting rights, DeSantis said the state would work to “ensure that elections are conducted in accordance with the rule of law” and he had “proposed an election integrity unit whose sole focus will be the enforcement of Florida’s election laws.” The governor said election security was just one priority focused on freedom in Florida, and criticized “Big Tech companies” for using their platforms to allegedly censor and stifle dissent.
To that end, DeSantis said data rights legislation would be proposed and focused on strengthening privacy protections for Florida residents. The governor also promised to push for legislation that would strengthen protections for Floridians’ Second Amendment rights, and defending the lives of unborn children and living children who need help. DeSantis said he’d be proposing additional funds for foster parents an adoption efforts in Florida.
“Protecting life does not end with the unborn. It must also include continued efforts to promote adoption and foster care so that all Floridians have a fair chance in life,” DeSantis said. Pertaining to COVID-19, DeSantis said the state would continue to prioritize treatments that ensure full recoveries and protecting the state’s seniors.
DeSantis mourned the victims of the Surfside building collapse at Champlain Towers South in June 2021 and praised first responders. He said the loss at Surfside was “devastating and incalculable” and that it was an overwhelming grief for the 98 families who lost their loved ones.
He said the state should provide support for an appropriate memorial from the collapse, so “future generations will never forget the legacies of the victims of that terrible event.”
Ending the State of the State address, DeSantis said state lawmakers should seize the moment and that they had “60 days to work together to build upon our rock of freedom,” calling Florida the nation’s “liberty outpost.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.