WEEKLY ROUNDUP: AND THEY’RE OFF
WEEKLY ROUNDUP: AND THEY’RE OFF
March 8, 2019Dara Kam
Recap and analysis of the week in state government
State of State
TALLAHASSEE --- The days run away like wild horses over the hills.

Perhaps it’s more than a tad misogynistic to invoke poet Charles Bukowski on International Women’s Day to capture the essence of this week’s kickoff of the 2019 legislative session.

But for many Capitol insiders, by Friday morning, the flowers and pageantry of Tuesday’s opening-day ceremonies already were forgotten and the 60-day countdown to the session’s conclusion had commenced.

Apart from the pomp and circumstance, opening day also set the stage for Gov. Ron DeSantis to make his debut State of the State speech to the House and Senate, as well as to the citizens of Florida.

First Lady Casey DeSantis, a former television news-show host, looked on from the fifth-floor gallery as her hubbie made his remarks from the podium in the House chamber.

In a departure from her predecessors, the First Lady has played a major role in the DeSantis administration since the governor was sworn into office in January.

And DeSantis took note of his other half’s contribution during his 34-minute talk on Tuesday.

“She has been by my side as we have toured the state and has also blazed her own trail on issues like education, disaster relief and freedom for the people of Venezuela. She has worked so hard and I think one thing is clear: the state of Florida has a great First Lady,” he said, as his wife patted the area near her heart. “I’m convinced this whole governor thing for me is just a way for the people of Florida to have Casey as their First Lady.”

Legislative leaders largely congratulated the governor on his premiere legislative oratory, in which he repeatedly used the word “bold” to describe his agenda and to urge lawmakers to follow his lead.

But DeSantis drew some pushback from Senate President Bill Galvano, who repeated what he’s said before: Don’t expect the Senate to be a “rubber stamp” for the governor.

BE BOLD

DeSantis focused heavily on now-familiar priorities such as the environment and education during Tuesday’s time at the podium.

The governor touted issues that he has discussed during appearances across the state since taking office Jan. 8. They included efforts to improve water quality, expand school choice and prevent so-called sanctuary cities.

“Let’s fight the good fight, let’s finish the race, let’s keep the faith so that when Floridians look back on the fruits of this session, they will see it as one of our state’s finest hours,” he said in the address, the traditional start to the legislative session.

Some of DeSantis’ actions, such as an initiative to improve water quality, have generally received bipartisan support. That initiative came after parts of Southeast Florida and Southwest Florida were plagued by red tide and toxic algae last year. DeSantis quickly focused on the environmental efforts during the State of the State.

“Florida is blessed with some of the nation’s finest natural resources,” he said. “We’re the fishing and boating capital of the United States. Our beaches bring millions of tourists to our state each and every year. The state’s unique natural environment is central to our economy, our quality of life and our identity as Floridians. I’m proud to have taken swift and bold action to protect our natural resources and improve Florida’s water quality.”

DeSantis also used part of his speech to tout his decision to suspend Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who was harshly criticized for how his office handled the deadly mass shooting last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. DeSantis replaced Israel with Gregory Tony, but Israel has appealed his suspension to the Senate, which has the power to reinstate or remove elected officials, and is fighting the ouster in court.

DeSantis noted that Israel’s suspension will come before the Senate soon.

“Why any senator would want to thumb his nose at the Parkland families and to eject Sheriff Tony, who is doing a great job and has made history as the first African-American sheriff in Broward history, is beyond me,” the governor said.

But Galvano, who appointed former Rep. Dudley Goodlette as a special master to oversee Israel’s appeal and to make recommendations, wasn’t comfortable with the governor’s comment about the Israel case.

“Look, he has every right to suspend him and has his reasons for doing so. But the Senate also has a role, and we’re going to do it right. We’re going to have due process and we’re going to vet through the suspension and we’ll make a decision,” Galvano said, adding he’s asked senators “not to prejudge” Israel’s case. “I’ve said this before. We’re not just going to be a rubber stamp for the governor.”

PUT IT IN YOUR PIPE AND SMOKE IT

The Senate might not give DeSantis an automatic seal of approval on every issue, but the upper chamber bowed to the governor two days after the session began, overwhelmingly approving a measure that would allow patients to smoke medical marijuana if doctors deem it the proper treatment. The House is expected to take up the bill (SB 182) on Wednesday.

Under the proposal, patients could buy up to 2.5 ounces of medical pot during a 35-day period and would be able to possess up to 4 ounces of cannabis at any given time. Smoking of medical cannabis --- which would have to be purchased from state-authorized operators --- would be banned in public places. And patients under age 18 would be allowed to smoke the treatment only if they are terminally ill and have a second opinion from a board-certified pediatrician.

The quick legislative action comes in response to an ultimatum delivered by DeSantis days after he moved into the governor’s mansion. DeSantis gave the Legislature until March 15 to address the smoking ban. If they don’t act, DeSantis threatened to drop the state’s appeal of a court decision that found the prohibition violates a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

The smoking ban was included in a 2017 law aimed at carrying out the amendment, approved by more than 71 percent of voters in 2016.

Several Republican lawmakers, however, bristled at the idea of legalizing smokable pot. Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, said that doing away with the ban defies common sense because of the well-known negative health effects of smoking.

But Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who has been instrumental in passage of the state’s medical marijuana laws, argued the legislation erects “reasonable guiderails” that would be lacking if the governor drops the court appeal.

“It’s time to move this discussion from Tallahassee to doctors’ offices around the state of Florida,” he said.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF RELIEF

Northwest Florida lawmakers Thursday promoted a $315 million proposal that would make loans available to local governments still reeling from Hurricane Michael and would set up a task force to determine additional state assistance for the storm-battered region.

The wide-ranging Senate bill (SB 1610) came after numerous other proposals have been filed in the House and Senate to provide relief following the deadly Oct. 10 storm that left a path of devastation after making landfall in Mexico Beach and roaring north into Georgia.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who represents some of the hardest-hit areas, said the intent is to make sure the region is “not forgotten.” So far, about $1.2 billion has been spent by the state to help with cleanup efforts, and local communities have burned through their budgets.

“The people of North Florida are self-sufficient, they’re independent, but there comes a time when government, rightfully so, should step in and help those who work hard,” Montford said.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Florida’s 60-day legislative session kicked off Tuesday, with the usual flowers, pageantry and speeches.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Make sure when you make your decisions with your patients that you do so in their health, in their best interest, and not turn this into some kind of joke.” --- Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, speaking about a move to allow patients to smoke medical marijuana if their doctors deem the treatment is necessary.