Gov. DeSantis touts COVID-19 response as he highlights 2021 goals

Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a joint session of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday as the 2021 session opens.
Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a joint session of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday as the 2021 session opens. (AP photo by Phil Sears)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reflected as much on the past year as he did his priorities for 2021 during a State of the State address Tuesday that touted his response to the coronavirus pandemic.

DeSantis, a staunch opponent to lockdowns and business restrictions, said Florida is in much better shape than other states because it is open for business.

“While so many other states kept locking people down over these many months, Florida lifted people up,” DeSantis said. “Florida’s schools are open -- and we are one of only a handful of states in which every parent has a right to send their child to school in-person. All Floridians have a right to earn a living -- and our citizens are employed at higher rates than those in the nation as a whole. Every job is essential.”

DeSantis’s speech marked the first day of the 2021 legislative session. Ironically, while DeSantis was talking about keeping the state open, the Capitol was closed to the public because of the pandemic.

FULL SPEECH: Uncut video | Transcript

In the early months of the pandemic, DeSantis shut down many businesses and set capacity limits at restaurants and other stores. But he later abandoned those policies and said Florida will never go on lockdown again.

“While so many other states kept locking people down over these many months, Florida lifted people up,” DeSantis said. “Friends, legislators, Floridians, lend me your ears: We will not let anybody close your schools, we will not let anybody close your businesses and we will not let anybody take your jobs.”

He credits that decision for Florida being in a better financial situation than forecasters predicted last year.

“Economic lockdowns are a luxury of the largely affluent Zoom class. Many Floridians can’t do their jobs over a computer, they need to show up,” DeSantis said. “Throughout this entire pandemic, Florida has not touched one red cent from our rainy day fund. So, the bottom line is this: By saving Florida’s economy our budget outlook is much more positive.”

He also attributed the openness to the creation of an influx of new businesses.

“We are one of the top destinations for business relocation,” DeSantis said.

Republican Sen. Aaron Bean praised the governor for his handling of the pandemic, even though he had to watch the State of the State isolated in his office because he tested positive for the coronavirus in the hours before the governor addressed lawmakers.

“He’s driven the point home. We take it for granted that we’re an open for business state and I think for him to illustrate that point is good,” Bean said while driving home to Fernandina Beach to isolate for 10 days. “We can’t hear enough how lucky we are to be in an open state. Our budget numbers are a little bit higher because we’re open.”

As a rebuke to local governments who fought against not requiring masks, the governor is proposing limiting local emergency powers.

DeSantis said the state will still be able to boost education spending and continue efforts to restore the Everglades and focus on other environmental priorities. That includes creating the Resilient Florida program under the Department of Environmental Protection, which will spend $1 billion on projects to help communities prepare for sea level rise and strong storms.

But Democrats criticized him for not discussing the state’s problematic unemployment system, which DeSantis called a jalopy as thousands of Floridians struggled to navigate through it when unemployment rose.

“I was very disappointed to not see any type of conversation around the unemployment system, around the eviction crisis. I felt like the governor was really using this to launch his campaign, versus actually address the real life problems that people are facing,” said Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani.

DeSantis is up for re-election in 2022 and is frequently mentioned as a potential presidential candidate in 2024.

Democrats argue the governor isn’t looking out for average Floridians, only his political career.

“He’s no longer focusing on the state of Florida, but he’s focusing on his popularity as he’s getting ready for a presidential run,” said Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

As the only statewide elected Democrat, Fried is considered a top challenger to DeSantis in 2022. Asked Tuesday, she said she has not announced a run for governor “yet.”

RELATED: Poll: Majority of Florida voters approve of DeSantis’ performance as governor

DeSantis did discuss legislative priorities, including a so-called anti-riot bill that would enhance penalties for crimes committed during a violent protest, not allow people arrested during such a demonstration to be released from jail before a first court appearance and create new felonies for organizing or participating in a violent demonstration.

“When riots broke out across the nation last year, we saw cities ruined by violent mobs. Law enforcement was targeted and lawlessness prevailed. This was not -- and must never be -- tolerated in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis also wants to reign in the power of Big Tech companies. He criticized them from profiting off of personal information and taking sides in elections.

“Because Florida is dedicated to free and fair elections, we cannot allow Big Tech to interfere in our elections by putting a thumb on the scale for the political candidates favored by Silicon Valley,” he said.

And while DeSantis boasted that Florida ran a transparent and efficient presidential election, he still wants changes to the election system, including the banning of people turning in ballots at drop boxes for someone other than a family member.

“There should be no ballot harvesting in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said. “One person, one vote.”


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