When Governor Ron DeSantis dropped his latest budget proposal last week, Florida political observers were treated to a masterful populist public relations ploy. Amidst a stern bout of belt-tightening in which DeSantis asked lawmakers for about $4.6 billion less than what his agencies say they need (driven in part by unavoidable post-pandemic federal cutbacks), there emerged a particular line item meant to be noticed: a cool million earmarked for the purpose of probing FSU’s college football snub at the Bowl Championship Series. This Seminole slush fund, as it were, garnered plenty of attention, as did a few other notable items, which we’ll unpack in more detail.
Populist Playbook Move #1 – Seminole Slush Fund Salve: Contrasted against signficant real-world needs, particularly at agencies like the Department of Corrections and the Department of Children and Families (DCF), which in particular find itself dealing with plenty of headaches already, the FSU request stands out like a sore thumb. In a world where essential services face the chopping block, DeSantis’s budget rollout made it clear there’s plenty of loose change under the state’s couch cushions for college football grievances. While critics argue that vital agencies are being forced to brace for impact, DeSantis shows them there’s at least enough money for the gears of government to keep grinding for gridiron gripes.
This is no defense of DeSantis, but those critics are playing the same game as the governor. His budget recommendations are only that – recommendations – and many are just for the sake of public relations wins. It will be state lawmakers, most of whom did not graduate from FSU, who will decide the actual state budget, and DeSantis’s theatric million-dollar line item has already accomplished all he’d hoped: headlines to act as salve for the still-smarting Nole Nation.
DeSantis garnered some media attention for the ask, but it isn’t likely to cost state taxpayers a dime because (a) it’ll likely be long forgotten come late February when the time comes to settle on actual budget specifics, and (b) it has already served its purpose – cheap headlines – and can now be safely brushed aside for the real business, which brings us to:
Populist Playbook Move #2 – Immigrant Airlines: Likening the governor’s budget rollout to a military operation, the Seminole salve was merely a diversion. Leading the main assault in the governor’s populist parade is an allocation of $5 million for transporting undocumented immigrants to liberal sanctuary cities. And while conservatives across the nation (myself included) are munching popcorn and thoroughly enjoying the comical clash between Democrat immigration rhetoric and real-world governance in so-called sanctuary cities, there are some real concerns about how those dollars are being spent.
Along with some governors in other red states, the tactic of relocating non-citizen migrant workers to Democrat sanctuary cities has forced Democrat officials to acknowledge the reality that red states have long pointed to: our collective infrastructure can’t handle the influx of non-citizens rushing over the border and laying claim to entitlement programs that are already costing trillions just for those who are qualified.
But the reservations many conservatives have about DeSantis’s relocation program is due to the fact that Florida isn’t quite a border state like Texas. Conservatives here would have an easier time defending DeSantis’s $5 million line-item request if the migrant workers he “deports” to liberal sanctuary cities were actually apprehended illegally here in Florida, rather than intercepted at the Texas border, loaded onto charter flights paid for with Florida’s money, and shipped off to New York, Chicago, Boston or San Francisco.
Family Funding Fumbles: One other item of note: The governor’s recommendations at the Department of Children and Families’ is almost a quarter-billion dollars below what the agency asked for. This comes at a time when data continues to show that the agency is struggling to manage the massive influx of challenges that have flooded it in the wake of the pandemic.
DeSantis neatly repurposed the DCF funding he carved out, and turned it into more funding for the Department of Corrections, which is in similar desperate need of upgraded facilities – not just for the comfort of the state’s prisoners who live and work in sweltering buildings that are decades past their useful lifespan – but also for the prison staffers who are forced to work alongside them. No wonder DOC has such hard time fielding enough corrections officers. It’s tough to find people willing to work in any prison, regardless of facility quality, but it’s particularly difficult when the working conditions are substandard, too.
Credit DeSantis for asking the legislature to pony up the cash to make this happen – our prison system is in dire need of some signficant upgrades, but freeing up the cash at the expense of the Department of Children and Families could prove problematic for the man who, on the most recent presidential debate stage, told America he takes child abuse very seriously in Florida. More on this topic is coming soon.
Slimming Down the State Workforce: While Corrections was on the receiving end of a massive influx of cash, they were also the one department with the largest number of staff cuts as proposed by DeSantis. In a nod to smaller government, DeSantis’s recommendations call for cutting over 1,000 government positions, but the Department of Corrections accounted for more than 40 percent of that total – more than 400 fewer positions than DOC says it needs. While streamlining government is a melody sweet to conservative ears, the looming question is whether or not his leaner government approach could trigger a reduction in the quality and efficiency of DOC’s services.
Bottom Line: Despite the risks and easy criticisms, it’s important to note that overall, DeSantis’s budget is, generally speaking, a shining example of fiscal responsibility. With $16.3 billion in total reserves and a concerted effort to reduce debt, the governor found a way to showcase a commitment to conservative financial principles, but still sprinkled it with dashes of populist gimmicks. Now, the ball moves to the legislature’s court. It will be they who ultimately fill each agency’s individual coffers – while remembering that it is DeSantis who holds the line-item veto pen and can kill of their special projects if they don’t bow to his will.
The budget will be set in late February, near the conclusion of the 2024 Legislative Session, which begins January 7th.