Now that it’s officially official that Gov. Ron DeSantis is seeking the 2024 GOP nomination for President of the United States, much of the rest of the country will start to get curious and learn more about his record as governor of Florida. With that in mind, we take a look back at the governor’s top stateside legislative priorities and how they are likely shape his campaign messaging.
The Florida Economy
There’s an old adage coined by James Carville, a former campaign strategist behind Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 Presidential campaign, which stands as a timely reminder of what really matters to voters: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
The 2024 General Election will prove no different, with economic burdens remaining on the tip of many Americans’ tongues as the consumer price index, a key barometer of inflation, increased 4.9 percent in April compared to the year prior. Supplemented by a looming debt ceiling crisis that could potentially send tremors to the pocketbooks of the lower and middle classes, the strength of the Florida economy will serve as a slam dunk for DeSantis.
We cover the pandemic in greater detail below, but it’s an important point to note that DeSantis is one of the first and boldest governors to lead a state out of lockdown. He took the political risk, but DeSantis has reaped numerous rewards ever since. But the economic benefits have perhaps been the most tremendous.
According to the latest figures released by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity last week, Florida’s unemployment rate for April stood at 2.6 percent. The reported figure represents a decline of 0.4 percentage points compared to the same period last year, and more importantly, marks two consecutive years that the state’s unemployment rate has outpaced national statistics.
Of the major industries in Florida, nine out of ten saw positive job growth year-over-year. The sectors with the highest job gains included education and health services, which both currently suffer from professional shortages nationwide.
While the current Fiscal Year’s budget still awaits the governor’s signature, resulting in muddied forecasts, the 2022 state budget boasted a surplus of $21.8 billion – the highest in state history. According to DeSantis’ office, the surplus was comprised of $2.7 billion in Florida’s Rainy-Day Fund – the highest in state history, $15.7 billion in unallocated General Revenue, $2.8 billion in unallocated trust funds, and $499 million in the Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund.
Concurrent with proliferating national fears surrounding rising inflation, debt limits, and a likely impending recession, expect DeSantis to make Florida’s robust economy the centerfold of his campaign’s talking points.
During his initial campaign for governor in 2018, DeSantis promised to collaborate with the Florida legislature to broaden programs attracting top educators to Florida by providing incentives and rewards for teachers. In 2020, he signed a bill increasing spending for teacher pay by $500 million. In 2022, he signed another pay increase totalling $800 million, and this year, he signed a bill increasing teacher pay by $1 billion.
DeSantis’s focus on education has increased even more since the disruption of the pandemic, taking a very hands on approach. Since 2021, DeSantis enacted sweeping education reforms drastically reshaping the framework of Florida’s public and charter school systems.
Most notable was the passage of the Parental Rights in Education bill in 2022, which limits the teaching of topics related to gender identity and sexual orientation in schools. Emerging as one of the most hotly-contested measures in recent Florida political history, the legislation has since been expanded and broadened to apply to a wider breadth of school systems as well.
Already a popular talking point among DeSantis and his legislative allies, the bill served as a national template, with states like Missouri and Arizona filing similar measures. Coupled with early polling indicators that show general support for the language of the original bill among former Trump voters and independents, expect to see parental involvement in classrooms as a major talking point on the campaign trail.
“Parents’ rights have been increasingly under assault around the nation, but in Florida we stand up for the rights of parents and the fundamental role they play in the education of their children,” said DeSantis, in what could be a preview of the rhetoric used during his campaign.
In more recent legislative affairs, DeSantis signed into law House Bill 1, which makes all students in Florida eligible for taxpayer-backed school vouchers. According to state education data, more than 250,000 students statewide are participating in the program during the academic year. The original program – known as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program – was originally implemented to provide low-income families with scholarships to help pay for private school tuition.
The scholarships are funded by corporations that receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their donations to the program and are administered by a number of non-profit organizations.
With 22 states, including Florida, currently practicing school choice, voters can expect DeSantis to tout the measure in key states like Iowa and South Carolina early in the primary season.
The governor has also strong-armed measures to eliminate funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in state universities, as well as interdicting classroom instruction on subject areas that can be categorized as critical race theory.
Lowering The Cost of Prescription Drugs
State lawmakers sent pharmaceutical giants into a frenzy earlier this year when they gave unanimous final approval to a bill targeting pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) as part of a broader effort to reduce prescription drug costs.
Through deliberations, members of the Senate were told that just three PBMs — OptumRx CVS, Caremark, and Express Scripts — control 80 percent of the prescription volume market, with Manufacturer Price Concessions to PBMs reaching $236 billion in 2022, more than doubling since 2012.
“There’s been significant consolidation in vertical integration over the last several years, where we hear the promise of increased access and lower costs, but we see the opposite,” Publix Director of Pharmacy Administration Katie Scanlan said. “The PBMs, through the contracting processes, restrict the services that community pharmacies like Publix can offer.”
DeSantis took on the measure as a leading legislative priority this year, repeatedly expressing support for PBM reform, noting in his State of the State address that Floridians are “adversely affected by inflated prescription drug prices due to pharmacy middlemen.” DeSantis further called for greater transparency in the system, stating, “We need reform of the PBMs.”
DeSantis has also undertaken executive action to combat high drug prices by implementing provisions in future contracts and solicitations with PBMs, including the prohibition of spread pricing and reimbursement clawbacks, data transparency and reporting requirements, and a review of relationships between pharmacies, insurers, and manufacturers.
In a potential direct attack on President Joe Biden, the governor can turn to a request made by the state of Florida that seeks federal permission to import prescription pharmaceuticals from Canada. If importation rights are granted, it is expected to lower the cost of consumer medication for state residents.
U.S. officials have yet to respond to the request, which was filed in 2019, resulting in a state lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration, claiming that the agency has “intentionally delayed the process of approval.”
Pushback Against Foreign Influence
As geopolitical tensions bubble over with countries like Russia and China, DeSantis has passed several pieces of legislation to curb foreign influence in Florida’s political and economic dealings.
Through his two terms, the governor has issued executive action and outlined legislative proposals aimed at stifling threats posed by the Communist Party of China and other hostile foreign powers in cyberspace, real estate, and academia.
The measures curtail the intentions of all seven countries on Florida’s list of countries of concern, making it more difficult for China, Cuba, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, or Venezuela to engage in espionage or influence operations within Florida’s borders and preventing purchases of agricultural land and lands surrounding military bases by those governments or their agents.
“From server farms to farmland, the Communist Party of China has been worming its way into our nation’s data storage systems and buying up tracts of land near sensitive national security sites,” said DeSantis. “By prohibiting the purchase of lands, state contracts with Chinese technology firms, and the infiltration of CCP-affiliated groups such as Confucius Institutes, Florida is leading the way to protect our nation from international foes.”
Further legislation largely prevents Chinese citizens from purchasing land in Florida, with some exceptions for those with non-tourist visas. The measure also prohibits governments, citizens, and businesses from foreign countries of concern from acquiring agricultural land in the state and bans the sale of property within 10 miles of military bases and other critical infrastructure to interests tied to the Chinese government or other foreign countries of concern.
Another bill passed last month bans state colleges and universities and their employees from accepting gifts from foreign countries of concern and restricts agreements between state colleges and universities and their counterparts in these countries.
In what may be his most controversial mark of political prowess, DeSantis will undoubtedly tout his deliberate avoidance of lockdown measures throughout the COVID-19 lockdown, bucking recommendations issued by the federal government.
DeSantis’ administration oftentimes played antagonist to Joe Biden, launching a series of lawsuits fighting against preventative measures, including a joint suit that sought to challenge the Biden administration’s public transportation mask mandate that includes airplanes, trains, and rideshare vehicles.
The governor also signed an executive order that outright prevented the enforcement of mask mandates in Florida schools. While most counties complied, a handful including Orange, Broward, and Leon Counties resisted, enforcing mask policies at risk of financial penalties.
Alongside state Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo, DeSantis took further action in 2022, making significant changes to Florida’s COVID-19 guidance that pushed back on masking, reducing isolation efforts for all Floridians, including those in schools and daycares, and recommending that physicians should “exercise their individual clinical judgment and expertise” based on their patient’s needs and preferences.
“People want to live freely in Florida, without corporate masking creating a two-tier society and without overbearing isolation for children,” said DeSantis. “We are empowering health care practitioners to follow science, not Fauci’s status quo.”
Should DeSantis prevail in the GOP primary, COVID-19 responses will emerge as a prevailing point of contention, with DeSantis and Biden frequently clashing over differences in approach.
Florida faced significant challenges with natural disasters in recent months, enduring the landfall of hurricanes Ian and Nicole while dealing with subsequent historic flooding in Fort Lauderdale earlier this year.
Experts and computer models suggest that Hurricane Ian, which briefly reached Category Five status, likely caused a grand total of $50 billion to $65 billion in damages – one of the costliest storms on record. In response, DeSantis announced millions in financial aid, ensuring that power was quickly restored and supplies were moving, all of which made great television and easy campaign fodder.
DeSantis also directed the Department of Children and Families to utilize $13.8 million in grant funding to support and expand mental health resources for Floridians impacted by Hurricane Ian, exhibiting a response strategy expanding beyond traditional infrastructure recovery. He also awarded $1 million through the Florida Disaster Fund to help teachers and other school employees who suffered impacts from Hurricane Ian.
Additionally, DeSantis announced that the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) has obligated more than $500 million in public assistance funding to communities impacted by Hurricane Ian, and Florida’s first-ever state-led sheltering and housing program has installed more than 140 travel trailers for Floridians who lost their homes due to Hurricane Ian, more than the 80 total distributed by FEMA.
Similar responses were issued following Hurricane Nicole, which brought about $750 million in damages. While hitting the campaign trail, the objectively successful counter to historic damages serves as a way for DeSantis to negate accusations that he represents a neophyte politician, unfit to lead the country.
In 2018, DeSantis campaigned on implementing a mandate for Florida businesses to use the E-Verify system. While Republican lawmakers have watered down the bill so that it only applies to businesses with 25 or more employees, they nevertheless passed a bill this year expanding the requirements for businesses to use the program. DeSantis signed the bill into law on May 10th.
DeSantis has also made national headlines over his involvement in a program using Florida tax dollars to transport migrant workers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. The move proved highly controversial, with media pundits ripping into the plan that involved Florida resources to relocate migrant workers who had little to do with the Sunshine State. But DeSantis justified the move by pointing out that many migrant workers who enter the United States illegally often end up in Florida. Though the legislature allocated more money to continue the program, there have been no further examples to date.
From a domestic standpoint, DeSantis has managed to check the boxes on an ambitious list of campaign promises and newer priorities that have developed over time. Now, his challenge is to convince Republican voters outside of Florida that his Sunshine State blueprint can work on a national scale.
Oh, yeah…and he’s got to demonstrate he has the chops to handle international issues with similar skill.