Crediting himself with “changing the conversation on a number of things” during his first legislative session, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Saturday his agenda contributed to Republican lawmakers passing policies with broad appeal.
In a wide-ranging and lengthy discussion with reporters after the conclusion of the 2019 legislative session, the governor weighed in on his victories, identified future priorities and raised the possibility of sealing a gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe by September.
House Speaker José Oliva and Senate President Bill Galvano called the session one of the most successful ever.
When asked why, DeSantis pointed to “good leadership” in the House and Senate and his focus on certain issues.
“There were certain things that I think a lot of Floridians had wanted to be addressed, like the water (quality issues). And then when they (legislative leaders) saw me doing it, they saw good public response,” DeSantis said, adding lawmakers realized “this is what Floridians want.”
DeSantis said Floridians of all political persuasions emerged as winners.
“There’s great winds for conservatives, but there’s also, with the environment stuff, that appeals to a lot of Democrats. We did a big increase in affordable housing, which is important to a lot of liberals. So there’s really something in here, I think, for everybody, in one way or another. That’s a good thing. The more we can do that, the better off we are,” he said.
DeSantis said he’s “pleased that we’ve really changed the conversation on a number of things,” such as the environment. In health care, lawmakers went along with the governor and passed a measure that would allow the state to import drugs from Canada, if the federal government approves the program.
“Usually people never want to touch prescription drugs because you see all the stuff coming down. But we said, let’s just do the right thing. Let’s hang in there, and that will be better for Florida. I think there was just a lot of opportunities to lead, and I took them, but then these guys in the Legislature took them as well, so that’s a good thing,” he said.
DeSantis said he intends to sign into law a measure aimed at carrying out a constitutional amendment restoring the right to vote for felons who complete terms of their sentences. The amendment excludes people convicted of murder and felony sexual offenses, and the legislation was one of the session’s most controversial issues.
Though critics contend the legislative measure is too restrictive, the constitutional amendment allows “a lot of violent felons” to have their voting rights restored, DeSantis said.
“I don’t really appreciate that, but that’s what the voters passed. In fact, you could go into a 7-11, shoot the clerk, steal the money, but if the clerk survives, you vote because you’re not guilty of murder. You’re guilty of attempted murder. I don’t like that, personally, but I think that’s what they passed. So we’ve just got to stick with it,” he said.
The governor also opined about a bill intended to make it harder for citizens’ initiatives to reach the ballot, a measure that lawmakers passed on Friday.
“Last year we had so many (constitutional) amendments that I think we need reform. Whether this is enough, I don’t know,” he said.
On gambling, DeSantis said he was given a plan worked out between Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican slated to take over as Senate president following the 2020 elections, and the Seminole Tribe. But it was too late in the legislative session.
The governor said he intends to continue working on reaching an agreement with the tribe.
“As you know, I was presented with an outline a week-and-a-half ago. That was not enough time to be able to pass it here. That’s a 31-year commitment for the state. There is no way that I could have done that,” DeSantis told reporters.
He also appeared to bristle that the Senate leader negotiated with the Seminoles, which he noted “they have a right to do.”
“But I’m the chief negotiator for the state. So I’ve got to look at ways that we can get the best deal for Florida. I’d like to get an agreement, and we’ll work on it. Maybe we can get something done by the time they come back in September,” DeSantis said, alluding to lawmakers returning to the Capitol for committee meetings.
DeSantis notched a number of victories during his first legislative session, including a controversial ban on so-called sanctuary cities that was a key part of his gubernatorial campaign last year.
But lawmakers failed to deliver on parts of the governor’s education platform, such as requiring more money to be spent inside classrooms. Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, a former House speaker, is working on a plan that would require 80 percent of education funding to be spent inside classrooms.
Also, DeSantis hasn’t given up on eliminating vestiges of the politically unpopular Common Core education standards.
“We’re in the process of figuring out what’s best for parents and students going forward. That is going to require legislative ratification. I cannot do that by myself, so we’ll be working on that. We want to do more with teacher compensation, because that’s just going to be an important issue in the future,” he said.
DeSantis will spend part of next week with President Donald Trump, whose support helped boost the former congressman into the governor’s mansion. DeSantis will join golfer Tiger Woods at the White House on Monday and attend a Trump rally Wednesday in Bay County.
DeSantis has pushed the president to authorize hurricane relief for parts of the Panhandle that remain in tatters after Hurricane Michael in October. The governor said he hopes Trump will make an announcement soon about relief funds.
The governor also contrasted his legislative achievements with his relatively short tenure in Congress.
“It’s not even that there’s fighting amongst the houses. If you’re a junior member of Congress, you’re not going to be a committee chair. You’re not going to be in the leadership. You’re basically just a vote. You really can’t influence the process very much. You can go on cable and kind of speak directly to the people. But even in the committees, you don’t get to do a lot,” he said.
State lawmakers are different, DeSantis observed.
“Since I’ve been in politics, it’s all been, one side hates the president. So when I was in Congress to begin, Obama was kryptonite, you know bad. Now Trump is bad. So that makes it tougher because if those presidents weigh in, your voters are going to want you to go one way or another. Here I think most voters are more focused nationally, so I think that we’re able to kind of work together a little bit better,” he said.
When asked if the sanctuary cities ban will help Republicans in Florida, a presidential battleground state, next year, DeSantis said some people believe it would have beenbetter for it not to pass “so that you can have it as an issue to rail against, politically.”
“I didn’t really look at it, whether it would be good for 2020. I think it’s just we’re doing basically what we said we were going to do. People have been promising this for a long time, and they weren’t able to deliver it. So I was able to deliver it. I think that’s a good victory for us,” he said.