TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered messages about California, New York, Illinois and President Joe Biden during a State of the State address that was more of a listing of what the governor’s done the past five years than it was a vision for the state’s future.
DeSantis, who is running for president and is expected in Iowa later Tuesday to continue campaigning ahead of next week’s critical caucuses, touted his efforts to protect Floridians from mask mandates during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, expand gun rights, restrict abortion and get rid of diversity and equity programs at state universities.
What was missing were specifics on how he will continue to lead the state in the future if he doesn’t get the presidential nomination.
“My message is simple: Stay the course. The state of our state is strong. Let’s keep doing what works,” DeSantis told lawmakers on the first day of the legislative session.
Before mentioning what he’s done in Florida, DeSantis attacked policies in liberal states.
“We are as a country in the midst of a great upheaval, and we see this throughout the land,” DeSantis said. “Cities throughout the land have decayed.”
He said residents in San Francisco, Chicago and New York have struggled with crime, homelessness and bloated government spending that’s driving people away.
“We … continue to witness a great migration of Americans away from cities and states pursuing these failed policies with Florida serving as a refuge for freedom and sanity,” DeSantis said.
But DeSantis said not everybody is welcome to seek refuge in Florida. DeSantis, who in 2022 flew dozens of migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, before they could find their way to Florida, said the state is stepping in to counter illegal immigration while the federal government has failed.
“We refuse to sit idly by while Biden’s border crisis ruins lives across the nation,” DeSantis said. “Since President Biden won’t stop the flow of illegal immigrants and dangerous drugs across the border, Florida has been forced to pick up the slack.”
And in a state that’s had the Florida National Guard deployed to prisons since 2022 because of staffing shortages, DeSantis boasted that Florida doesn’t have a lot of government employees compared with other states.
“We have set the standard for limited government,” he said. “Florida has the fewest state employees per capita and the lowest state government cost per capita in the entire United States.”
Democrats criticized DeSantis’ speech, saying it was targeted to Iowa voters rather than addressing current needs at home, like skyrocketing property insurance rates and the lack of affordable housing.
“There were no new ideas. It was a rehash of his greatest hits. When he opened up his remarks, I was wondering ‘When is he ever going to talk about Florida?'” House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell said. “My God! Chicago, California, New York, D.C. — everywhere but Florida.”
The Senate and House began the largely ceremonial proceedings, with lawmakers coming together for optimistic speeches from the Republican leaders of each chamber. Flowers adorned the lawmakers’ 160 desks as Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices and former leaders gathered to wait for DeSantis.
Unlike past years, DeSantis has largely been quiet about what he hopes to achieve during the session, focusing instead on his presidential campaign, where polls show he badly trails former President Donald Trump in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The opening of the session was also marked by stormy weather as strong winds and rain pounded the Florida Panhandle while rolling toward Tallahassee. Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis skipped the ceremonies to travel to the Panama City area to view storm damage.
“I think tropical storm force winds on opening day means good luck, kind of like rain on your wedding day,” Senate President Kathleen Passidomo said. “I hope the old adage in like a lion, out like a lamb will ring true this session.”
Brendan Farrington, The Associated Press