MILTON, Fla. (WFLA) — Gov. Ron DeSantis is scheduled to speak at the Imogene Theater in Milton. Signage at the event was put up that read “Expanding Rural Broadband,” which was named as a budget priority in the governor’s budget announcement on Wednesday. However, the sign was removed soon after.
DeSantis’ “Framework for Freedom” budget had a provision to spend $100 million on broadband expansion for the 2023 fiscal year.
“One of the aspects of infrastructure we’ve embraced is the need to make sure, and it’s not actually just rural but it’s largely that, but there’s very populated counties that also have gaps, is making sure we’re expanding access for broadband,” DeSantis said. “To make sure that all communities have access to high speed internet, it’s just important for how our society functions. We were able to secure $400 million last year to expand broadband access across the state of Florida. So today, we are here to issue our first awards for broadband expansion in the state of Florida.”
He said there would be awards for 41 counties and 58 projects across Florida, with the total funding given out equaling $144 million in broadband access grants. While saying it was important for economic development and education to have internet access, DeSantis also said some use of it was unhealthy.
“These kids, if they’re on their phones during class, you know texting, they’re not going to be learning. So what you should do is leave your phone in like a cubby, sit in class, grab the phone, you can use it during recess or something,” DeSantis said. “But being buried in that thing all during the day is healthy. And I think it’s going to be a continued battle with young people.”
Mentioning Nintendo video games and other entertainment options, DeSantis said kids still needed to go outside, rather than being solely on technology.
Speaking to the need for internet in rural areas, Santa Rosa teacher Rhett Rowell said it was important to have access to improve quality of life.
“I’ve been at Jay High since 2007, which is my alma mater. Jay is the most northern school in Santa Rosa County,” Rowell said. “And is in one of the most rural areas in our diverse district. There are many advantages to living in rural America, as we know, but internet usage is not one of them. There is a digital divide that exists within our district, whether you’re surfing in the south end or planting peanuts in the north end, the need for reliable internet is universal.”
Rowell thanked the officials gathered for their work to “level the playing field and bring equal access” to county residents. He said many students had trouble with reliable internet and how it impacted school work due to disadvantages from the broadband infrastructure. He thanked the governor for his support, then DeSantis returned to the podium.
Before beginning discussion of rural broadband, the governor first spoke about the main legislative session coming in March, but highlighted the toll relief program which begins delivering credits to residents this month, approved in a December special session. However, it’s not the only special session he mentioned.
“I think they’re going to do a special session in a week or two, maybe next week, about a whole bunch of things that need to be taken care of,” DeSantis said. “Including making sure that Disney doesn’t have self-governing status anymore. So that’s done!”
DeSantis then referred back to Wednesday’s budget proposal, saying that compared to when he first took office as governor in 2019, the budget was good back then, “lean” but now the reserves for Florida are “$15.7 billion in surplus” in the planned budget, despite supply chain disruptions, inflation, and the pandemic. He previewed planned tax relief items for the coming special session.
In similar commentary to his budget proposal, DeSantis said he planned to make purchases of gas stoves tax-free. Like in Tallahassee, DeSantis also went into detail on economic topics, comparing Florida to the rest of the United States.
During a question and answer session after the main speakers finished, DeSantis said the broadband initiative was funded by a combination of federal and state “pots.”
While discussing funding needs, DeSantis said lawmakers were the ones with funding power, while he did not.
“The state reps and senators, they do stuff to the budget, so talk to them. I have no money except what they appropriate, so they appropriate,” DeSantis said. “Unless you’re Biden, he just does what he wants, doesn’t follow the Constitution.”
He closed the event out, thanking those who attended, then left.