Gov. Ron DeSantis

Gov. Ron DeSantis vows to keep restaurants open during COVID-19 at a news conference on Dec. 15, 2020, at Okeechobee Steakhouse in West Palm Beach.

Gov. Ron DeSantis called  Florida “the freest state in the United States” in his 2022 State of the State address Thursday, making his opposition to COVID restrictions his centerpiece as he opened the 2022 legislative session.

He also repeatedly slammed the federal government and bashed Democratic-run states, as he prepares for his reelection campaign this year and potentially a 2024 run for president. 

“While so many around the country have consigned the people’s rights to the graveyard, Florida  has stood as freedom’s vanguard,” DeSantis said. “... Florida has stood strong as the rock of freedom. And upon this rock, we must build Florida’s future.”

No COVID protocols

The session opened at the Florida Capitol without any COVID-19 protocols, the day after the state set another record with more than 125,000 new cases amid the omicron wave.

Total COVID hospitalizations were down slightly but still at more than 9,000 statewide.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, almost 4.8 million Floridians have tested positive for COVID-19, with more than 62,000 reported deaths. Only a few legislators and spectators wore masks. One exception was Nikki Fried, the Democratic agriculture commissioner who is running for governor.

In his session-opening speech, his fourth as governor, DeSantis called Florida  “the escape hatch for those chafing under authoritarian, arbitrary and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions.”

He attacked “the biomedical security state” and “blind adherence to Faucian declarations,” referring to frequent DeSantis target  Anthony Fauci, director of the  National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The governor also claimed, “We were right, and they were wrong,” in his decision to open up schools in the state despite the pandemic.

DeSantis didn’t mention President  Joe Biden  by name but declared “inflation is an invisible tax” in reiterating his call for a $1 billion gas tax holiday and called the system of handling asylum seekers “a massive human smuggling operation run by the federal government.”

He repeated his calls for legislation, including a stricter Parent’s Bill of Rights that would allow parents to sue schools if they believed critical race theory was being taught, as well as pay raises and additional $1,000 bonuses for teachers and law enforcement officers.

The governor boasted that his proposed nearly $100 billion budget calls for a record-setting $15 billion in reserves, without mentioning that billions of the new-found revenue flowed from Congress and President Biden as pandemic relief.

He also pressed for even more voting restrictions following last year’s bill that drastically reduced the number of drop boxes.

“It is Orwellian doublespeak to invoke the concept of ‘voting rights’ to mean ballot harvesting, prohibiting voter ID and taxpayer funding of elections,” he said.

State law already bans harvesting and requires IDs, and it was unclear what he meant by attacking “taxpayer funding of elections.”

Democratic rivals respond

Three of the leading Democratic candidates to challenge DeSantis in the 2022 election blasted the speech.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D-St. Petersburg) said in a video response that DeSantis is “pushing a partisan agenda that is making Floridians poorer, sicker, and more divided than ever.

“Instead of facing the challenge of COVID-19, Ron DeSantis ignored it, allowing Florida to become the epicenter of the pandemic for months on end,” Crist said.

“He gave his donors special access to the vaccine — but let nearly a million COVID tests expire while you waited in line for hours.”

Fried, Florida’s only statewide-elected Democrat in Florida, accused DeSantis of hypocrisy in proclaiming  Florida  “the freest state,” saying he is fining school board members for mask mandates, making it harder to vote and supporting efforts to limit abortions.

His state’s budget is being rescued by billions of federal aid pushed through by Biden, she said.

“This governor couldn’t lead Florida out of a paper bag — let alone a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic,” Fried told reporters.

State Sen. Annette Taddeo (D-Miami) said DeSantis was “pandering to the primary voters in Iowa” and turning “Tallahassee into his personal audition for president.”

Instead, he should focus on issues like “massive rent hikes” and up to 1 million COVID-19 tests in a state warehouse that expired as omicron cases skyrocketed, she said.

“That was not a state-of-the state address,” she said in a video response. “That was a campaign speech.”

GOP praise

The Senate opened its session with Senate President Wilton Simpson echoing DeSantis in praising “the Free State of Florida .”

Simpson also claimed that “over the last two years, Floridians have watched the freedoms of our friends and relatives in other states get stripped away one at a time.”

He also gave a warning to local governments, which have often battled with the DeSantis administration over COVID restrictions and with the Legislature over preemption bills limited their powers.

“It’s been said with great power comes great responsibility,” Simpson said. “Well, we want to ensure that local governments are exercising one or the other.”

In opening remarks, House Speaker Chris Sprowls said the COVID-19 pandemic discussion has been dominated by extremes — from “people who want to lock everyone inside at home” to “people who think the virus is a conspiracy to microchip the masses.”

“It’s our job as legislators to see the entire horizon, the full spectrum,” the Palm Harbor Republican said.

“It’s our responsibility to appreciate the complexities and balance perspectives, to see both the risks and the opportunities presented in every issue, and to find a right path forward.”

He told lawmakers the legislative session will focus on the state’s “risk portfolio” from cyber-security defenses to hurricanes.

“We are at a cash-rich moment in our state’s history, which means we have a historic opportunity to make critical investments in long-term needs, but also a historic opportunity to waste money on short-term wants,” Sprowls said.

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