Following a messy election, a fresh political season is set to begin in Florida. New state leaders will be sworn in Jan. 8, including incoming Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Although he still has a few decisions to make on key positions, DeSantis and his team have worked to fill hundreds of jobs in the administration, including for some of the state’s most prominent posts.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers are filing bills for the 2019 Legislative session that begins in March.
Friday on The Florida Roundup, Florida Politics Correspondent A.G. Gancarski and Tampa Bay Times Political Editor Adam Smith discussed the political stories to look out for in the coming months.
Here are the highlights:
New State Leadership
DeSantis will be yet another Republican governor for Florida, but many questions remain about how exactly he’ll govern. At 40 years old, he will be the youngest governor in a century. A former congressman — member of the House Freedom Caucus — and military serviceman, he's entering state politics for the first time — with no executive experience. And while Gov. Rick Scott entered office with a promise of jobs, DeSantis didn’t lay out such clear priorities.
According to Smith, a Freedom Caucus congressman "is usually not somebody that is ready or eager to compromise on anything.” But DeSantis has shown some signs of wanting to reach across the aisle.
DeSantis is has a good relationship with Agricultural Commissioner-elect Nikki Fried, a Democrat. And he appointed Democratic lawmaker Jared Moskowitz to be the next director of the Division of Emergency Management.
“DeSantis would be well served to make ... appeals to unify Florida and bring it together,” Gancarski said. “After eight years of Scott, I think a message of healing has to be the way forward.”
Lt. Governor Jeanette Nuñez also becomes the first Latina elected to that office and the highest-ranking Latina member of the government in the Florida's history. Her role in state politics remains to be seen.
Following a year that saw a crisis in Florida's waterways, the environment could turn out to be a major issue for the incoming administration.
During the campaign, DeSantis tried hard to distance himself from the past 20 years of Republican rule on environmental issues in Florida, including from current Gov. Scott.
He’s called himself a "Teddy Roosevelt conservationist” and said he’ll use his Washington, D.C. connections to speed up the building of reservoirs south of Lake Okeechobee to restore water flow and prevent toxic algae blooms. He also said he supports a ban on fracking and drilling off the coast.
And he hasn’t been shy about expressing his distaste for Big Sugar. According to Smith, that sort of vocal opposition to such a huge player in Florida politics is significant.
“Sugar has been maybe the single biggest and most influential player in Florida politics for so long,” he said. “This is the first time that we have a governor who has been pretty overtly hostile to the sugar industry. Whether that's a true commitment or whether that's responding to so many of his constituents and voters facing algae blooms, we’ll see. But that is a giant different direction in terms of the approach to the sugar industry.”
In November of 2016, 71 percent of Florida voters approved the Florida Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative, also known as Amendment 2, which gave patients the right to use medical marijuana if they have been diagnosed with a qualified medical condition.
But it’s been slow to implement. And Scott was not intent on expanding access.
Fried was elected commissioner of agriculture on a platform to expand medical marijuana. And DeSantis appears uninterested in continuing to fight at least some of the court battles being waged by the outgoing administration. Lt. Gov.-elect Jeanette Nuñez recently said that DeSantis "has said he's not interested in continuing that fight."
Meanwhile, a new report shows medical marijuana use in Florida is steadily rising. And Florida is likely to play in the hemp space and industry.
Amendment 4 — the ‘Voting Restoration Amendment’ — was approved by 65 percent of voters on Nov. 6, amending the state constitution to return the right to vote to most felons after they’ve served their sentences. It goes into effect Jan. 8.
But there’s confusion around how the state will implement it.
The amendment’s crafters argue that it was written in a way that mandates that felons be able to register to vote automatically on Jan. 8, with the burden on the state to arrange the details. In theory, those newly eligible simply have to register to vote as any other eligible voter would.
But Governor-elect Ron DeSantis said the constitutional amendment shouldn’t go into effect until after state lawmakers pass a law laying out how to implement it.
That discrepancy could result in a legal fight — and soon.
When it is implemented, the influx of as many as 1.2 million new voters is a potential game-changer for Florida elections.
“It doesn’t take much to tilt an election in a state that keeps deciding elections by 1 percent,” Smith said. But, he conceded, it’s “dubious at best” that all new eligible voters will register. “These are going to be a lot of people that probably don’t frequently vote that are going to take a lot of effort to get out to the polls.”
No event had more of an impact in Florida politics in 2018 than the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. That’s led to a number of changes in policies and procedures related to school safety at all levels of government.
Last week week, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission issued the polarizing recommendation that schools should arm their teachers. And that’s caused a stir.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, said he will ask the panel to recommend state law be changed so teachers who undergo background checks and extensive training will be allowed to have guns on campus as a last line of defense.
It's a proposal that both the state teachers union and PTA oppose.
Gancarski said widespread opposition to the proposal suggests it would be tough for the legislature to pass the proposal.
“This feels really hard to get through," he said. "There doesn’t seem to be a lot of organic support for the concept,”
But Smith disagreed, saying he does not think it’s a non-starter.
“There may not be a lot of organic support from parents or teachers but organic support is not something that's driven the Florida legislature for a long, long time,” he said.