TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Ahead of his likely 2024 presidential bid, GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis is proposing a nearly $115 billion budget that funds some of his most politically divisive policies - including millions of dollars for election police and more state funds to transport migrants from the southern border to blue strongholds.
DeSantis' budget, which he released Wednesday, also requests $15 million for New College, the small public liberal arts college that the governor is trying to transform into a conservative learning institution. He also wants to remove sales taxes on purchases of gas stoves, a nod to the GOP outrage over some liberal cities pushing to ban gas stoves in new construction.
Taken together, the proposed budget outlines conservative themes and priorities that DeSantis routinely uses to excite the GOP base in Florida - but with an eye toward the Republican voters nationally.
"If we were here four years ago and people said we would be able to propose what we are proposing today, most people probably would have said that would not have been possible," DeSantis said Wednesday during a press conference at the state capitol.
"But if you told them everything that happened in the last four years, they definitely would have said it would not have been possible," he said.
The Florida Legislature has the ultimate authority to write the state budget, but DeSantis' growing clout within the national Republican Party has given him great power over the GOP-dominated Legislature, which in recent years has generally handed him everything he wanted. Any budget wins will give DeSantis more talking points if he jumps into the 2024 presidential race, further fueling the impression that he can use public funds to enact a conservative agenda.
Before the Wednesday press conference began, an administration staffer told state workers at the event to applaud and be "high energy." Moments later, they cheered and clapped loudly when DeSantis entered the Florida Cabinet room, where he announced the budget plan. The workers broke out into applause three times during DeSantis' presentation.
DeSantis framed much of his remarks around not just a single-year budget proposal but rather a recap of his entire first term. He compared the state of Florida's overall economy with four years ago when he first took office. During that time, Florida's main state reserve fund increased by $12 billion, the unemployment rate has dropped to 2.5 percent, and Florida has become the fastest-growing state in the country - changes that occurred while the state was grappling with a global pandemic that helped make DeSantis a national star with the conservative base.
Some of the governor's more controversial programs would get significant increases if ultimately approved. DeSantis wants $31 million and 27 positions for the Office of Election Crimes and Security, which he created last year to investigate election fraud. DeSantis lauded the office and, in August, held a high-profile press conference highlighting 20 arrests made by his agents. Several of those defendants, however, had the charges against them dropped, and the office has yet to secure a conviction.
The governor is also seeking another $12 million for his controversial program that uses state funds to transport asylum-seeking migrants from the southern border to other parts of the country,
The program drew swift backlash when, in September, DeSantis transported 50 mostly Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas to Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts, a move he said was done to highlight the Biden Administration's border policies. Democrats, including President Joe Biden, widely condemned the flights.
"We have had a deterrent effect, and people are sick of having an open border with no rule of law in this country," DeSantis said Wednesday when asked about the funding.
The migrant flight program is facing several lawsuits, including from state Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-Miami), who argued that the DeSantis administration violated state law because the original funding was earmarked to remove "unauthorized aliens from this state" while the September flights originated in Texas. This year's proposed budget broadens the scope of the language to say the funds would be used to remove "unauthorized aliens within the United States."
House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell approved of some budget proposals, like making diaper purchases tax-free, but said that, overall, it represents a political stunt.
"Governor DeSantis's budget proposal is a financial wish list of recommendations to influence decisions made in the Capitol," she said in a statement. "While I am encouraged to see recommended allocations that will benefit Floridians … I am also concerned to see troubling recommendations like the 'Unauthorized Alien Transport Program,' which I worry could lead to further political stunts like when the Governor previously used taxpayer dollars to lure unsuspecting individuals seeking political asylum from Texas to Martha's Vineyard."
Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book (D-Plantation) took a slightly different tone, saying the "devil is in the details," but praised tax breaks in the plan and said she sees "much common ground at first glance."
DeSantis' proposal also relies on more than $400 million in Biden administration Covid-19 aid money. The biggest single chunk from that funding is $220 million to pay for $1,000 bonuses for first responders. Over the past two years, state budgets have included nearly $10 billion from the federal pandemic assistance, money that has been used to pay for some of DeSantis' most politically divisive proposals heavily criticized by Biden and other Democrats, including the migrant flights.
Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott last month sent a letter asking state leaders to return their pandemic relief money in order to help pay down the federal debt. DeSantis said, however, that returning the money would not have a huge impact on the nation's debt.
"If you look at how much money that is … it's like $100 million, $200 million, a few hundred million," DeSantis said Wednesday. "How much dent would that make in the debt?"
DeSantis also wants $2 billion in tax cuts, including permanently removing state sales taxes on baby and toddler necessities like cribs and strollers - as well as for gas stoves. Gas stoves have become the newest wedge issue after some liberal cities have sought to ban them in new construction to reduce carbon footprints and for health reasons. The Biden administration does not support banning gas stoves.
"They want your gas stove, and we are not going to let that happen," DeSantis said.
Other provisions in DeSantis' proposal:
$65 million for a state worker pay increase, including a 5 percent across-the-board increase and 10 percent increases for positions deemed "hard to hire" for.
The budget unveiled Wednesday by DeSantis would put a record $25.9 billion in the Florida Education Finance Program, the state's central pot of education funding, which represents an increase of $1.4 billion, or 5.8 percent, compared with current-year spending.
On the environment, the governor said his proposed budget provides $1.1 billion for Everglades restoration and water quality programs, including $200 million for replacing septic tanks with sewer system hookups. And he said the proposal includes $406 million for coastal resiliency projects and planning. And it includes $75 million for land acquisition at the Department of Environmental Protection in addition to $25 million for local park grant programs through DEP. The budget proposal does not include money through the agriculture department for conservation easements.
The proposal also calls for a health care budget of $47.3 billion, which is a decrease from the $48.9 billion budget that took effect in July.