Every weekend, we take a look at the news stories shaping the conversations in Florida’s business, policy and political worlds. Here’s this weekend’s Capitolist wrap-up, which we call “The Wrap.”
Even when the Big Tech crackdown bill gets stomped in Federal court, DeSantis will only reap the rewards
Over the last year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has invested a large amount of political capital to convince fellow Republicans in the state legislature to pass a sweeping crackdown on internet companies including Facebook and Twitter – all in the name of free speech. The payoff for DeSantis will be headline after headline showing him standing up to Big Tech. After signing the bill (SB 7072) into law this week, a pair of internet trade associations filed a federal lawsuit to strike the bill down.
Democrats weren’t alone in criticizing the bill. Many conservative attorneys are predicting (and most are also hoping) that the bill will be ruled unconstitutional because, they say, it infringes on the free speech rights of one group in the name of protecting those same rights for others. Conservative legal scholars point out that the case shares some legal similarities to a pair of landmark conservative legal victories: Citizens United v. FEC, and Masterpiece Cakes v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
Both cases hinged in part on the free speech rights of private organizations and were almost universally celebrated as conservative victories. This new federal lawsuit, NetChoice & CCIA vs. Moody, makes similar arguments to defend those same free speech rights. Florida’s Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody faces the challenging task of defending the law DeSantis asked for while trying not to trample the previous landmark victories. It will be a tall order.
But no matter how the court ultimately rules, DeSantis will continue to reap political rewards, simply for “fighting the good fight.” That’s because corporations like Facebook and Twitter, while certainly powerful and flush with cash, aren’t exactly considered DeSantis allies when it comes to his re-election prospects or his longer-term plans in 2024. On that front, DeSantis loses nothing by leading the fight against them. Neither Facebook nor Twitter can cast a single ballot in an election.
Meanwhile, DeSantis is winning the support of hundreds of thousands of social media users who fear the tech giants have garnered too much power. So, if DeSantis loses the fight in federal district court, you can take it to the bank that he’ll appeal the decision.
No amount of legal hand-wringing from conservative scholars and pundits on the topic of free speech rights will dissuade him, either. Despite the admittedly terrifying prospect of the courts affirming the government’s power to tell private organizations what they can and cannot say, many conservative voters are more terrified about all-powerful corporations telling them what they can and cannot say on a social media.
Every headline on this legal controversy, no matter how scathing against DeSantis, will only further bolster him as a champion for regular people over corporations.
Former governor Rick Scott used a similar strategy when he pursued two legally controversial drug testing policies, one for state workers, the other for welfare recipients. Despite his own attorneys warning him that the prospects of getting the policy turned into state law were slim, Scott doggedly pushed for both, and both were ultimately swatted down by the courts. Undaunted, Scott appealed, knowing negative headlines would follow, but he also knew something that many journalists in the state didn’t: the policy was overwhelmingly popular (around 70 percent in favor), and even the nastiest headlines served to portray Scott as willing to fight for a policy they agreed with.
DeSantis is following that very same playbook for those very same reasons. He may be on legally dubious footing, but even a loss in court is a political win for him.
He can’t win them all, though…
While the Big Tech crackdown may score him some points in the near term, DeSantis is already starting to pay a political price for another bill he signed into law: Senate Bill 50, which requires out-of-state online retailers to collect and remit sales taxes for items sold and shipped to Florida. Economists project the bill will generate over $1 billion per year.
All that cash has to come from somewhere, though, which means anyone who makes online purchases will now have to pony up their fair share.
And yes, there are perfectly valid and rational arguments for why the sales tax bill was generally good for Florida business owners. It means they can now compete against the Amazons of the world on a level playing field, and just as important, with that extra $1 billion in revenue going to the state, those very same Florida businesses won’t have to pony up more in taxes themselves to pay for a hike in unemployment insurance costs.
But hiking taxes by any amount is one of the cardinal sins a Republican can commit. And on this count, DeSantis is guilty, period. That’s why he and his Republican allies sought political absolution from the conservative “high priest” of taxation, Grover Norquist, who makes a living examining tax policy, arguing for tax reform in Washington D.C. and across the nation. Norquist ran the numbers, and gave the tax hike his blessing by declaring it “revenue neutral.”
It won’t matter, though, because it takes too long to explain all that in a television sound bite, while it only takes a few seconds to say “billion dollar tax hike on Florida families.”
Democrats, not exactly known as champions for lower taxes, wasted little time doing exactly that. They even mocked DeSantis’s apparent shame, pointing out he signed the bill “in the middle of the night.”
Already, other Republicans are throwing shade at DeSantis for his tax-hiking heresy. In a preview of what is likely to be a major line of attack against DeSantis in 2024, New Hampshire’s Republican Governor Chris Sununu gave DeSantis a bit of a slap during a radio show last week.
“And Florida is great, Florida’s been very flexible,” Sununu said. “He did sign another billion dollars of tax increases. I love Ron, but the fact of the matter is their taxes are going up and ours are going down.”
Can’t say we didn’t warn you, Governor.
Is Rebekah Jones finally finished?
Yes, we were right about the online sales tax hike being a bad political move for DeSantis and Republicans who voted for it. But we were also right about something else that DeSantis can chalk up as a win: the cratering credibility of so-called whistleblower Rebekah Jones and her disgusting exploitation of state and national media for her own financial gain.
Jones has had a rough couple of weeks, relatively speaking, that is. She didn’t get arrested or charged with any new crimes, at least. But she’s getting blasted by media figures like CNN’s Jake Tapper and others who are finally starting to realize “she’s got issues,” as DeSantis warned months ago. And to make matters worse, reporters across the country, and especially in Florida, are eagerly awaiting a pair of early June criminal cases still pending against Jones, one for alleged cyberstalking, and the other for her alleged breach of the state’s emergency messaging network.
Regardless of the outcome there, Jones’s stature as a mainstream media celebrity is all but shot. Even the Orlando Sentinel, which initially helped perpetuate some of Jones’s myths, was less than kind to her in a headline after she announced she wouldn’t run for Congress.
Once the darling of national media outlets, Jones made frequent appearances on CNN, and basked in glowing articles by Cosmopolitan magazine and Forbes. Now, Jones is finally being swept into the dustbin of history, where she belongs.
It didn’t have to be this way, with the media pumping her up, sustaining her, and then finally allowing her to freefall to the ground. The Capitolist was the first media outlet anywhere to warn that her credibility was dubious at best. We also warned only days into the saga that she’d long ago exonerated DeSantis, in writing, even as her story in the media kept changing. If we were wrong about anything, it was our prediction that she would soon be “memory-holed” by the same media that once promoted her. It just took most of them a lot longer than we thought.