For the first State of the State address of his second term on Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis is kicking off the Florida legislative session in a much different position than he was four years ago.
When DeSantis took office in 2019, he had defeated his Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum by a razor-thin margin – less than one percent – and was a little-known political figure nationally with an uncertain future.
DeSantis appears before the Republican-led Legislature in Tallahassee in a changed environment. He’s coming off a landslide victory against former Gov. Charlie Crist, has been traveling the country to fundraise and promote his new book, “The Courage to be Free,” and is preparing to launch an expected 2024 presidential campaign once the legislative session is over. Polls show he and Donald Trump lead the field for the GOP nomination.
This State of the State speech, his fifth, will be closely watched and dissected far beyond Florida’s borders for clues to not only his ambitions for the state but how he would market himself as the Republican presidential nominee.
His past speeches can be notable for what’s unsaid compared with the governor’s rhetoric today. He didn’t mention the word “woke” in any of his previous addresses, although he now regularly peppers his speeches with the conservative epithet when talking about progressives’ policies.
And issues such as gun rights and abortion did not receive any attention from the governor until last year’s State of the State, when he promised to strengthen protections for both. His previous addresses were silent on any issues involving transgender people.
Ahead of his appearance Tuesday, a look back at the annual address over the last four years offers insights into the governor’s changing priorities, shifting agendas and evolving politics in what may be the highest-stakes speech of his career.
Criticism of “woke” education and what the governor calls indoctrination in schools has become a hallmark of the DeSantis administration. But in the governor’s early State of the State addresses, that wasn’t the focus of his plan to improve Florida’s educational system.
Career and technical education were a top priority of the governor in 2019. Vowing to make Florida the No.1 state for workforce education by 2030, DeSantis set out on expanding apprenticeship grant programs and skills-based education funding. Conservatives have regularly endorsed trades-based alternatives to liberal arts degrees from colleges or universities.
Marsan Carr, executive director of the Florida Association for Career and Technical Education, praised DeSantis’ promotion of the field. Carr said the governor’s support has allowed for “programs so we can expand and better serve the people who are the backbone of the workforce for the state of Florida.”
School choice was also a big topic in 2019 as DeSantis honed in on expanding vouchers. After the legislative session that year, DeSantis had signed a bill creating the Family Empowerment Scholarship, which provides state money for eligible students to attend private school based on family income.
Recruiting and retaining teachers was another priority of the governor’s in 2019, around four years later the state faces a massive teacher shortage. In August 2016, there were about 2,400 teacher vacancies around the state, according to data collected from the Florida Education Association. By 2022, that number had more than doubled.
The pandemic and new curriculum changes have contributed to the shortage, Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar said, but the leading cause is teacher pay.
Aside from raising the minimum salary, DeSantis has mentioned teacher bonuses in some of past addresses as a way to reward and retain instructors. A $1,000 teacher bonus was awarded in 2021, which the governor mentioned in his address last year.
In the upcoming budget, DeSantis has proposed distributing $200 million more toward increasing teacher pay in 2023 and he’s likely to highlight that in his Tuesday address to state lawmakers.
Reopening schools during the pandemic also became a major point for DeSantis in both the 2021 and 2022 addresses, after he had ordered schools closed from March to August 2020.
Hints of controversial education changes started in the governor’s 2019 address when he briefly mentioned that then-Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran was looking into standards that would have a “new emphasis on American civics.”
The bulk of DeSantis’ most divisive curriculum policies were enacted in 2021 and 2022, notably the Parents’ Bill of Rights and the Parental Rights in Education bill, which critics have labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
The governor celebrated the passage of the Parents’ Bill of Rights in his 2022 address, saying, “We reject the notion that parents shouldn’t have a say in what their kids learn in school.”
DeSantis has lauded Florida’s economy in every State of the State address. The Sunshine State is depicted as a haven for entrepreneurial small businesses and economic opportunity, and a state that taxes lightly.
“Freedom works,” DeSantis said in 2022. “Our economy is the envy of the nation. And the state is well prepared to withstand future economic turmoil.”
The portrayal of the overall Florida economy and the state’s fiscal health is backed up by the numbers, specifically unemployment, labor force and state revenue. But some other areas – like affordable housing – have worsened.
Last year, DeSantis boasted of one of the largest budget surpluses in state history, around $22 billion. A major factor that contributed to the surplus, along with high tax collections and the governor’s insistence on reopening businesses during the pandemic, was federal pandemic relief funding.
Florida received almost $6 billion from the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act for services such as education, health services and agriculture, according to the Florida Department of Financial Services. Another $2.47 billion was directly distributed to the state’s 12 largest counties.
While touting economic freedom during the pandemic in 2021 and 2022, DeSantis grew increasingly critical of “authoritarian, arbitrary and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions” in response to COVID-19 in 2022. He shifted from commending the state’s vaccination efforts that he said saved lives in 2021 to emphasizing monoclonal antibody treatments a year later for those who had become infected.
DeSantis also has applauded low unemployment rates in his State of the State speeches.
Since the end of 2020, Florida’s unemployment rate has remained below the national average. In December 2022, Florida’s unemployment rate was 2.5%, which is 1 percent lower than the national average and the lowest it has been since 2006.
While DeSantis has hailed Florida’s economic health, he hasn’t mentioned a key related issue: affordable housing.
Rental prices have been on a gradual increase since 2010 but began to soar at the onset of the pandemic. Some cities in Florida have seen rate increases in the double digits in the past few years, according to a 2022 study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.
Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said residents in her district face homelessness due to the rising cost of living, particularly housing. It’s a topic often glossed over by the governor, Eskamani said, because he wants to emphasize how well Florida is doing.
“I suspect he’ll continue to ignore these real economic issues and just focus on the bulk of his culture wars,” Eskamani said.
In DeSantis’ first and last State of the State address of his first term as governor, he proposed tough immigration policies.
DeSantis vowed that Florida would not become a sanctuary state, which offers support to undocumented immigrants and limits interaction with federal immigration authorities.
“We won’t tolerate sanctuary cities that actively frustrate law enforcement by shielding criminal aliens from accountability at the expense of public safety,” DeSantis said in his 2019 address. The measure was passed but is now tied up in the courts.
In 2020, DeSantis advocated for stringent E-verify policies to assure a “legal workforce.” But to the governor’s dismay, the Legislature passed a more diluted bill on the employment eligibility program that required government employers and some private employers to use E-verify. Now the governor is pushing for universal E-verify use in the upcoming session.
If implemented on a wider scale, the move could be costly for employers and place unnecessary barriers to employment, Florida Immigrant Coalition federal campaign lead Yareliz Mendez-Zamora said.
Last year, DeSantis alluded to Florida’s controversial relocation of 50 mostly Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. He said he requested funds from the Legislature so when “the feds dump illegal aliens in Florida,” the state government could send them to states with sanctuary policies.
“As a state, we cannot be a party to what is effectively a massive human smuggling operation run by the federal government,” DeSantis said.
In his first State of the State address, DeSantis sought to bring Floridians together to support northwest Florida communities devastated by Hurricane Michael in 2018. Now, the governor will have the same task ahead for southwest Florida after damage from Hurricane Ian last year.
In 2020, DeSantis mentioned fortifying infrastructure to withstand floods better – although his statewide flooding resilience plan wouldn’t be announced until nearly two years later.
More needs to be done by the state government to slow some of the effects of climate change, said Sierra Club Florida Chapter director Emily Gorman.
Rep. Rick Roth, R-West Palm Beach, said the governor’s approach to climate change has worked well, empowering cities to apply for infrastructure grants. “The conservative approach to climate change is plan for it, is to put more dollars for infrastructure, try to figure out ways we can deal with it,” Roth said.
Water quality has been central to DeSantis’ discussion about the environment in most of his addresses. His Blue-Green Algae Task Force – made up of scientists from around the state – served as one of the governor’s go-to examples of his action on improving water quality.
The task force released a list of recommendations for restoring Florida waterways from blue-green algae. But nearly all of the recommendations have gone unfulfilled three years later, according to a report from a coalition of environmental groups.
Other environmental promises touted in DeSantis’ past addresses leaned heavily into Everglades restoration. In 2019, DeSantis cited replacing the entire board of directors for the South Florida Water Management District.
The board, which has a major impact on water quality in the Everglades, previously seemed to favor corporate agricultural interests but that’s changed, said Friends of the Everglades policy director Gil Smart.
“They’ve really been very forward looking in terms of the policies that they’ve adopted,” he said. “It’s made a big difference just in terms of moving us toward cleaner water.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at email@example.com. You can donate to support our students here.