Showing no signs of taming a ferocious debut as Florida’s chief of state, Gov. Ron DeSantis kicked off February with a $91.3 billion spending plan padded with a little something for everyone.
The governor’s budget proposal --- the largest in state history --- boosts funding for public schools, pumps money into water projects and trims taxes.
For those whose eyes glaze over when they encounter the words “budget,” DeSantis provided plenty of other fodder this week.
He quickly replaced former Secretary of State Mike Ertel, who got the boot last week after a racially charged photo emerged. DeSantis tapped Laurel Lee, a Hillsborough County circuit judge who is married to Republican state Sen. Tom Lee, to oversee Florida elections during the critical 2020 presidential election.
DeSantis also appealed to Common Core critics by directing the education department to revamp school standards.
As a member of the State Board of Administration, DeSantis endeared himself to Jewish Floridians by shaming Airbnb over the company’s decision against listing properties in the West Bank. The board took a step Tuesday toward imposing economic sanctions on the popular home-sharing platform over rentals in the West Bank, which is a major flashpoint in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
And DeSantis took the high road after the Florida Commission on Ethics found probable cause that his 2018 election foe, Democrat Andrew Gillum, broke state ethics laws with trips to Costa Rica and New York and a pricey ticket to the Broadway hit musical, “Hamilton.”
Gillum, a former Tallahassee mayor who joined CNN as a political analyst this week, had been dogged throughout last year’s campaign by an FBI investigation into his city’s government.
When asked if he felt vindicated by the ethics commission’s findings, DeSantis said he’s “moved on.”
Gillum’s behavior was bound to create a problem, DeSantis, a former Navy prosecutor, said.
“But I’m not, like, rooting for him to fail. Look, the process will work, but I mean, I don’t have any ill will. I think he’s a talented guy. What I said in the campaign I think was accurate. But I’ve moved on,” he said.
BIG BUDGET DROP
DeSantis’ state spending proposal is a starting point for lawmakers, who will negotiate a 2019-2020 budget during the legislative session that starts March 5. The Legislature typically makes significant changes to spending proposals offered by governors.
Speaking to reporters in the governor’s large conference room Friday morning, DeSantis touted issues such as cutting taxes, with a move to hold down property taxes that otherwise would go to schools and providing popular sales-tax “holidays.”
“I said throughout the campaign, Florida being a low tax state, I think, has been integral to our success and our growth,” DeSantis said. “We want people who are working hard here to be able to live without being taxed excessively, and then we want to send a signal to the rest of the country that Florida is a good place to invest and move to because you’re going to be treated fairly.”
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, issued a statement Friday saying he appreciated DeSantis’ recommendations, which he indicated “reflect many of our shared priorities.”
Galvano noted that senators are looking forward to a new estimate of general-revenue taxes. That revised estimate, expected later this month, could affect the amount of money lawmakers will have available when they negotiate the budget.
“Developing a comprehensive budget recommendation within the limited time following the election was certainly not an easy task, and I commend the governor and his staff for completing this critical component of our state budget process,” Galvano said.
CALLING IT QUITS ON COMMON CORE --- AGAIN
Five years after then-Gov. Rick Scott took aim at Common Core, DeSantis said he’s going to wipe out the “vestiges” of the standards developed by officials in 48 states.
The State Board of Education in 2014 adopted what are known as the Florida Standards, a move that involved making changes to Common Core, which had become a target of Republican voters.
But during a news conference Thursday in Lee County, DeSantis said parents continued to express frustration about Common Core and issues such as standardized testing while he campaigned last year. The governor, who took office Jan. 8, said he was directing Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to undertake a process that will lead to new standards.
“I’m here to say when you complained about Common Core, I hear you, I told you I’d do something about it, and today we are acting to bring those promises into a reality,” DeSantis said.
Though Scott touted moving away from Common Core, Corcoran on Thursday said Florida has been “stuck” with Common Core and alluded to the Florida Standards as a rebranding.
“It’s all the same, it all needs to be looked at, it all needs to be scrutinized,” said Corcoran, who was a state House appropriations chairman in 2014 and later became House speaker. “And we need to sit down with the experts, the stakeholders, the great superintendents, the great leaders in the community and figure out how do we write the best, No. 1 standards in the United States of America.”
The announcement drew praise from the Florida Education Association, a statewide teachers union that has frequently clashed with Republican leaders over issues such as standardized testing.
Kurt Browning, superintendent of schools in Pasco County, said he supports “streamlining standardized testing” and other initiatives proposed by DeSantis. But the Republican schools chief expressed caution about moving away from the current standards.
Browning asked DeSantis and Corcoran “to consider the amount of time, funding, and effort teachers, administrators, and school districts have invested in professional learning, curriculum, materials and resources that align with our current standards.”
“My concern is that we not lose ground in the progress we have made toward ensuring our students are prepared for the demands of college and the workforce,” he said.
‘OBVIOUS ATTEMPT’ OR ‘COMPLETE COMPLIANCE’
In a 41-page report, lawyer Elizabeth A. Miller, the state ethics commission’s advocate, rebuked Gillum for allegedly accepting gifts from Tallahassee entrepreneur Adam Corey and from undercover FBI agents posing as developers. Corey had been a close friend of Gillum and lobbied the city commission.
Failing to report the gifts “is an obvious attempt to either conceal the gifts from the public or hide the fact that he accepted gifts from a lobbyist and principals of a lobbyist --- both prohibited donors,” Miller said in the report released Wednesday.
In a closed-door meeting last week, the commission found probable cause that Gillum “accepted things of value based on an understanding his official action would be influenced and when he knew or should have known they were given to influence action in which he was expected to participate,” according to a news release that also was distributed Wednesday.
The panel found probable cause to believe the former mayor “misused his position to accept things of value for himself and others in return for access and influence.” And the commission found probable cause to believe Gillum accepted gifts with a value of more than $100 from a lobbyist or vendor of the city and failed to report the gifts. No probable cause, however, was found that Gillum solicited gifts.
Gillum, who will request a hearing in the case, has steadfastly maintained that he hasn’t broken laws or committed wrongdoing.
“I am confident that as we move through this and as a judge looks at the facts, they will determine that I have acted in complete compliance with the law,” Gillum told CNN host Chris Cuomo Tuesday night.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Ron DeSantis released his first budget proposal, a $91.3 billion spending plan that would be the largest in the state’s history if adopted by the Legislature.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “There’s no evidence he ever did anything for anybody in return for a gift. … This is all, frankly, trivial stuff.” --- Lawyer Barry Richard, referring to the Florida Commission on Ethics finding of probable cause that his client, former Tallahassee Mayor and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum, broke state ethics laws.