TALLAHASSEE — As Gov. Ron DeSantis takes his “great American comeback” tour to the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina this week in his pursuit of the Republican nomination for president, he promises audiences he will deliver results by bringing his norm-breaking approach to government in Florida to Washington, D.C.
So what can America expect if DeSantis is in charge?
Elected as a Trump-embracing conservative who promised to expand school choice and protect clean air and water, DeSantis morphed into an advocate of the aggressive use of state power to usher in a radical shift in education and health care policy, a bigger role for state government in business and personal life, new limits on local government control, and, in the process, less government transparency.
In the last four years:
- Disney, once considered a state treasure as a tourist magnet and economic engine, now is an enemy of the state.
- The LGBTQ+ community, which had been riding a wave of broader societal acceptance after the passage of same-sex marriage, now has members leaving Florida because they don’t feel welcome anymore — a decision cheered by the governor’s staff.
- The state has gone from enabling a narrow slice of the K-12 population to be eligible for school vouchers to one in which every student is eligible at a potential cost of billions of dollars.
- Florida’s colleges and universities, where state officials had for decades maintained a hands-off approach to academics, are now prohibited from teaching materials that constitute “identity politics” or are rooted in critical race theory. They also now must respond to increased pressure from the governor’s political appointees, who have been given unprecedented authority over what students and faculty members can do and say.
- Industries from agriculture to tourism and construction, which rely on migrant labor, now must verify the citizenship status of employees.
- And abortion services, once the most liberal in the Southeast, may soon be banned at six weeks, before many women know they’re pregnant.
And the Florida economy boomed
As the governor focused on being an “energetic executive” to check the power of private businesses and what he saw as the “woke” policies of the left, Florida’s economy boomed.
As the state’s in-migration numbers returned to levels the state hadn’t seen since the 1980s, its unemployment rate became the lowest in the nation, and the state budget — with a massive injection of federal funds from infrastructure and pandemic-era programs — now boasts one of the highest surpluses in the country.
DeSantis appealed to traditional conservatives and signed into law deep restrictions on business liability lawsuits, continued tax breaks and temporarily lowered tolls. He enjoyed a surge in Republican voter rolls and retained his appeal with many environmentalists by approving new investments in the Everglades that have made its water quality healthier than it has been in decades.
But Florida’s governor has also presided over an era of steep increases in the cost of homeowners insurance. Floridians today are paying on average more than $4,231 — triple what Americans pay nationwide, according to the industry-supported Insurance Information Institute.
Not all policy changes sailed through
Less watched, however, has been how he has managed his achievements.
One of the three super PACs supporting his candidacy is called Never Back Down, but on nearly a dozen high-profile issues, DeSantis was forced to back down from his original positions and settle for compromise language sought by more traditional factions of the compliant Republican Legislature. Those issues include his ban on COVID restrictions for business, the sale of real estate to certain foreign buyers, election access issues, loosening state gun restrictions, banning vaccine passports, eliminating Disney’s taxing district, and imposing new rules on businesses to target illegal immigration.
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“We proved it can be done. We chose facts over fear, education over indoctrination, law and order over rioting and disorder,” the governor declared during his scripted but glitch-filled campaign rollout on a Twitter livestream last week. “… This whole business we are in is about producing results.”
When some of DeSantis’ policy results were found to be unconstitutional, or faced legal scrutiny, the governor had the Legislature revise the law, and in some cases had the changes apply retroactively.
Those issues include the retroactive rewrite of the law authorizing the relocation of migrants — to allow him to avoid transporting them into Florida first; the rewrite of the law targeting Disney — to allow the taxing district to continue but under the control of the governor’s appointees; the rewrite of the law that allowed DeSantis to accuse 20 people of voter fraud but which was in legal jeopardy, and a retroactive exemption added to the public records law so that the governor’s travel records will no longer be subject to public scrutiny.
“Buckle up when I get in there because the status quo is not acceptable,” DeSantis proclaimed last week.
But achieving those goals in politically divided Washington, D.C., would be vastly different from governing in Florida.
He would immediately face more friction than he did with a Republican legislative majority that is more homogeneous in its ideology than ever before, showing a willingness to support DeSantis in breaking long-held Florida traditions of refraining from interfering in academic freedoms, doctor-patient relationships and public records access.
“The reason that we were so successful is that we had a speaker of the House, myself, and a governor who were aligned,” said Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, at a bill signing with the governor in Southwest Florida in early May. “We have the same political philosophy. We care deeply about this state and the freedoms that we enjoy as Floridians.”
DeSantis changed himself first
DeSantis didn’t begin with a big government, grievance-focused approach when he was first elected to Congress in 2012, but as he changed Florida as its governor, his political philosophy changed, too.
In his 2011 polemic, “Dreams of Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama,” DeSantis espoused traditional Republican values of small government, lower taxes, and the populist views of the Tea Party movement that swept him into Congress.
He ran for governor with hard-line policies on immigration and abortion and vows to overhaul what he called a “historically liberal” Florida Supreme Court.
Water quality focus
After he was narrowly elected governor in 2018, his first actions were as an environmental centrist, taking policy positions that acknowledged climate change was occurring and promising to remove business influence on water policy. In one of his first acts, he removed Big Sugar’s allies on the South Florida Water Management District board and replaced them with members who supported a shift in how water is managed in Lake Okeechobee.
The approach has been “a game changer” that has led to noticeable improvements in the quality of water flowing south into the Everglades, said Anna Upton, executive director of the Everglades Trust, a Tallahassee-based advocacy group.
DeSantis has committed $3.5 billion to Everglades clean-up projects, prioritized funding to protect the Indian River Lagoon, as well as delivering $1.1 billion in local government resiliency efforts that allow communities to determine their vulnerabilities to sea level rise and inland flooding.
The investment also has led to a reduction in the salinity levels in Florida Bay — necessary to avoid the massive seagrass die-off that has happened in the past, Upton said, and it has also resulted in improving fishing conditions.
Health care mistrust
The governor’s small-government approach shifted most dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially regarding health care and education. He used his executive authority to ban mask and vaccine mandates, business restrictions and punished local governments that countermanded his approach.
DeSantis also went from banning vacation rentals, endorsing COVID vaccines for seniors and organizing vaccination events in gated communities, to questioning science and hiring a surgeon general whose outlier views about the mRNA vaccine brought condemnation from medical colleagues.
Now, doctors are prohibited from providing transgender medical care to children, and health care providers are allowed to deny medical care for moral reasons.
The governor called Anthony Fauci “one of the most destructive bureaucrats in American history” and public health experts generally “a stridently partisan, highly ideological mess.”
The governor’s hands-off approach to the pandemic came when “he recognized the political advantage of aligning himself with the anti-vax, anti-public health measures right-wing branch of his party,” said Aileen Marty, a distinguished professor of infectious disease at Florida International University.
“After his shift, he argued that his policies were good for the economy and hand-picked ‘experts’ with fringe — often dangerous — views to support them,” she said.
For example, the governor’s claim that masks or N95-style respirators are ineffective is flawed, she said.
“When masks/respirators are used appropriately, all studies show that the proper use … reduces transmission,” Marty explained. But studies of mask mandates “have nothing to do with the proper use of masks or respirators” to prevent infections, and that has led to confusion.
DeSantis spells out his reasoning in his new book, “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.”
“After reviewing the data from March to April 2020, I made the judgment that draconian measures would do major damage to the economy and society while making little to no impact on the trajectory of the disease.”
He has proudly compared Florida’s per capita COVID mortality rates with those of New York and California, saying he protected seniors first. Florida leads the nation in deaths of people 85 and older, with 9,828 COVID-related deaths in that age group, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the state ranks 45th in the percentage of the vaccine-eligible population that has completed a two-shot or single-dose COVID-19 vaccine and had one booster.
But to public health experts on the front lines of battling the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor’s rhetoric and policies had a measurable impact: a decline in trust of public health professionals and higher per capita loss of life.
Scott Rivkees, the first Florida surgeon general appointed by DeSantis, has written several opinion articles outlining how anti-vaccine misinformation has led to an erosion of respect in the experts and an “expansion of denialism — the rejection of facts — with potentially very harmful consequences.”
Marty said she believes the DeSantis policies cost people’s lives.
“The clearest evidence that the health policies came with a physical cost to Floridians is that in the latest ranking by the CDC of deaths per capita, Florida ranked 14th highest in the nation with 28 deaths for every 100,000 Floridians,” she said. “Even adjusting for the high percentage of elderly that live in Florida, the Florida pandemic performance was on the poor side of the midpoint.”
Increasing state control over schools
The pandemic also played a role in shifting the governor’s education priorities.
He came to office with the goals of expanding school choice and increasing teacher pay, but his agenda shifted when he and former education commissioner Richard Corcoran insisted Florida would keep schools open after briefly shutting them in the early months of the pandemic. The governor adopted a more combative approach to school policy after he came under withering criticism and lawsuits from some school districts and teacher unions.
He withheld funding from districts for requiring vaccines and masks and, when the pandemic subsided, the governor continued to refine his approach by introducing two issues that had not previously been at the forefront of educational debates in Florida: race relations and gender identity.
Heavily influenced by conservative think tanks like the Claremont Institute and the Manhattan Institute, the governor began to embrace a view of education espoused by Christian fundamentalists that argue contemporary education has become “indoctrinated” by the “woke ideologies” of the left and the conservative crusade was akin to a broader religious fight between good and evil.
DeSantis energized Republicans on the right and appealed to parents across the political spectrum by calling for classroom instruction restrictions on many contemporary subjects — including Black Lives Matter, queer life and the debate over slavery reparations.
Education officials rejected social studies and math textbooks because of certain racial and gender-specific material. They ordered books be removed from classrooms and libraries until they are reviewed. And a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies was rejected for what the state deemed was a lack of “educational value.”
Now, one school district is being sued for removing dozens of books based on the recommendations of a single teacher. Teachers are more vulnerable to investigations for what they do in the classroom. Parents can sue a school district if they object to lessons related to race and sexual orientation. Diversity programs are banned from public universities and community colleges, and schools are restricted from using trans students’ preferred pronouns.
Educators say the policies are chilling teacher behavior, academic freedom and administrative decision-making and exacerbating teacher shortages.
“I find myself a lot more deliberate when I am speaking about certain things, like civil rights,” said Richard Judd, a Nova High School social studies teacher with 23 years of experience. “A lot of the time it comes up when teaching something like slavery or a topic of race.”
Judd says he now uses general terms to avoid mentioning race when teaching about emotional historic events, like “Bloody Sunday” in 1965 in Selma, Alabama, or explaining why white segregationists wielded signs that read “Race Mixing is Communism” when protesting Black children being admitted to all-white schools.
Other educators warn that these policies have begun to negatively shape the way students think.
“We’re taking away [students’] ability to think critically and to know there are many sides to an issue,” said Mayade Ersoff, who teaches U.S. history and world history at Palmetto Middle School in Pinecrest. “They’re going to know only one side of an issue, [and] that’s not reality.”
Bill Husfelt, the superintendent of schools in Bay County, a conservative county in the Panhandle, sees DeSantis’ actions as a response to what the populace wants.
“He is a very savvy politician. You might not agree with him, but he is not signing bills that parents are saying why did you do that, he is signing bills that parents are excited about,” said Husfelt, who is also the president of the Florida Association of District Superintendents.
By August 2022, there were 6,006 advertised teacher vacancies tallied by the Florida Education Association — a 174% increase from the number of vacancies in August 2020.
Higher education did not escape the governor’s culture war battle.
All tenured professors in the state college and university system must now undergo review every five years and can be let go for poor performance. Faculty committees have a diminished role in hiring, and university and college presidents can now make direct hires. Higher education institutions are banned from asking faculty and students to abide by principles of respecting diversity and equity and to include multiple viewpoints and ethnic backgrounds in their activities.
When it comes to the governor’s initial priorities of raising teacher pay and expanding school choice, Florida has made significant progress. All Florida school-aged children regardless of family income will soon have access to private school vouchers, and the state has invested roughly $3.3 billion into teacher raises.
“The biggest and most positive thing has been the increase in teacher salaries,” said Husfelt.
But the state still lags behind. A 2022 report from the National Education Association found that Florida ranks 16th with average starting teacher salaries of just over $44,000 a year. The average Florida public school teacher still only makes about $51,000 — placing Florida 48th in teacher compensation nationwide.
Student performance scores are also mixed. Florida fourth graders are doing well but that progress collapses when it comes to eighth grade, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In the last three cycles — 2017, 2019 and 2022 — Florida ranked sixth, fourth and third among states in fourth-grade math. In those same years, Florida eighth-graders ranked 33rd, 34th and tied for 31st.
Rising insurance rates
Florida’s property insurance crisis may be the one area where DeSantis has avoided headlines associated with his policies. He is not the first governor to preside over a property insurance crisis, but he is the first to largely cede dealing with the crisis to the Legislature.
Since Hurricane Andrew upended the insurance market in 1992, the industry has seen booms and busts, most recently in 2006, just before then-Gov. Charlie Crist took office. But DeSantis’ response was far different than Crist’s.
Crist took an active role during multiple legislative sessions on property insurance in 2007, personally bargaining with legislative leaders to focus on driving down the cost of premiums and by expanding the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. to make it competitive with private insurers and capping Citizens’ rate increases. Rates overall went down the next two years.
By contrast, DeSantis signed into law measures allowing Citizens to impose higher rate increases than before, giving $3 billion in taxpayer dollars to help struggling insurers and limiting lawsuits against insurance companies.
For more than 100 years, Florida law allowed homeowners to have their attorneys’ fees paid when suing an insurer in an effort to level the playing field between the insurance company and the policyholder. But lawmakers removed that provision last year at the request of the insurance industry.
When state regulators demanded data from insurers about their litigation this year, 71% of companies submitted “no data.” Despite the change in law, property insurance rates continue to rise.
Since DeSantis took office, the number of exemptions to the state’s public records law has expanded, and the interpretation of what is a public record has shifted. He has signed into law exemptions on public records on public officials, including his current and past travel, and he has enacted exemptions about candidates for state college and university presidencies — allowing him to handpick favorites with little scrutiny.
During the pandemic, agencies cherry-picked what data would be released. His top aide in charge of the migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard used an email alias to communicate with operatives. And, reporters have found, DeSantis’ office routinely delays access to records by holding them for long periods of time.
“They know they have not just a statutory duty but a constitutional duty to provide access to those records in a reasonable period of time, yet they sit on them,’’ said Barbara Petersen, director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a records watchdog group that has sued the governor for the migrant flight and university records.
“I worry that if he’s doing this here now, what would he do once he’s president? If he doesn’t want us to know who he is meeting with as governor, what’s to stop him from trying to do the same if he were president?”
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporters Ana Ceballos and Lawrence Mower and Miami Herald reporter Sommer Brugal contributed to this report.