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DeSantis focuses on national issues in State of the State speech

Ron DeSantis speaking behind a podium
Gov. Ron DeSantis
Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers his State of the State address on Jan. 9, 2024.

DeSantis launched the 60 day session with a speech that touched on issues like immigration, education, and law enforcement, and appeared pitched to primary state voters as much as Floridians.

The speech sets the stage for a legislative session where lawmakers will tackle issues like health care, the environment, and education, even as DeSantis continues his presidential campaign, vying to be the Republican nominee to challenge President Biden in November. DeSantis said policies in other states have "sparked an exodus" of residents to states like Florida, which he described as a "refuge for freedom and sanity."

Political analyst and retired University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus and WUSF politics and environment reporter Steve Newborn join host Matthew Peddie to discuss the speech, the response from the Florida Democratic Party, and what's ahead for the legislative session.

MacManus said DeSantis had a "laundry list of achievements" in contrasting Florida with other states, pointing out that Florida is "obviously an in-migration magnet state, people moving here, businesses moving here and so forth. There was a lot less on 'wokeness' type of things. Yes, there was some of that. But it had a strong fiscal responsibility, a financial economic thread that ran through the whole speech, which is not surprising in light of where our country is on that matter."

A woman sits behind a microphone in a radio studio
Chandler Balkcom
Susan MacManus

House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, rebutting DeSantis's speech, urged lawmakers to turn away from culture war issues.

"Let's leave kids' library books and woke boogeymen alone this year," said Driskell, a Democrat who represents House District 67 in the Tampa Bay area.

"We've spent two years being governed by what DeSantis thinks would be most attractive to Iowa and New Hampshire primary voters. And that hasn't made life better for Florida's families," said Driskell.

MacManus said Driskell and Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, who also spoke in response to DeSantis, were focused on affordability, abortion rights, and voting rights, with an eye to turn out in the upcoming elections.

"We see this working out nationally, each party is running out, claiming the other is a threat to democracy. So you can see the overlay of national politics in the presentations of both the Florida Democrats and the Florida Governor," said MacManus.

Two men talking in a radio studio
Chandler Balkcom
Matthew Peddie and Steve Newborn

Newborn said abortion rights will be a big issue this legislative session, with a bill filed by Republican State Rep. David Borrero that would further restrict abortion, even as a petition to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would remove any abortion restrictions has gathered more than 900,000 signatures.

"That's also up before the state Supreme Court," noted Newborn.

"And this is all going to be swirling around the election later this year."

On the environment, Newborn said DeSantis made a clear connection to Florida's economy in outlining his goals for the session, which include funneling millions of dollars into Everglades restoration and protecting waterways.

"Florida's environment and its nature are a huge draw for tourism, and in the last couple years, we've had some major black eyes in that image with red tide off the beaches, dead fish in Tampa Bay," said Newborn.

I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.
Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.