The governor’s annual State of the State address to the Legislature is never as big a deal as it’s made out to be, though this year might be a bit different. That’s because Gov. Ron DeSantis is off to a fast start. (Wilfredo Lee / AP)
TALLAHASSEE — It’s just a speech. A lot of yapping — something that’s already in plentiful supply in Tallahassee.
The governor’s annual State of the State address to the Legislature is never as big a deal as it’s made out to be, though this year might be a bit different.
That’s because Gov. Ron DeSantis is off to a fast start — a blur in a blue suit, seemingly with a “major announcement” every hour or so.
There’s still an element of mystery surrounding this new Republican governor who surfaced as an unlikeable Trump guy, won by an eyelash and has been refreshingly hard to pigeonhole on several issues.
After two months in office, he’s still a blank canvas.
So much that when his own chief of staff, Shane Strum, a former Broward health care executive, spoke recently to a group of business insiders from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, he said their first question was, “Can you tell us a little bit more about the governor, the governor’s team, and what they look like?”
DeSantis’ first State of the State, scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday, is a chance for him to re-introduce himself to a rapt statewide TV audience (okay, okay, the Florida Channel).
The Florida Constitution requires the governor to address the Legislature once a year “concerning the condition of the state … and recommend measures in the public interest.”
Year after year, governors exaggerate how wonderful things are in Florida, while they minimize festering problems or ignore them altogether, like the decades-long neglect of public schools, mediocre teacher salaries and chronic deficiencies in child welfare and the prison system.
This is the time for DeSantis to DeLiver more DeTails.
He needs to seize the moment. He needs to give people a clear vision of what kind of place Florida should be, and what he plans to do about education, health care and the environment. Instead of sucking up to legislators, he should pointedly challenge them — to reform the system of sentencing and punishment, for starters.
DeSantis knows he’s still in his honeymoon, and it won’t last long (just ask former governors Rick Scott or Charlie Crist). Fights with fellow Republicans are just around the corner. His political stock will probably never be higher than it is now.
Past governors have used the State of the State to salute the courage of law enforcement officers or share small success stories as examples of the state’s great and unfulfilled potential.
That’s fine. But I want to hear DeSantis tell us he’s going to move quickly to restore felons’ voting rights under Amendment 4. Or how he plans to tackle the affordable housing crisis in Florida. Or how to help the millions of working families that are teetering on the edge of disaster, one bad break from financial ruin.
Or DeSantis can squander a golden opportunity and waste time telling lawmakers why they need to ban sanctuary cities, even though there are none in Florida — a phony Trumpian issue that’s red meat for the Republican base.
If DeSantis talks about immigration, then he should follow through on his campaign promise that the state pass an e-verify law requiring employers to check the legal status of their own workers. It’s a heavy lift, and an idea long resisted by lawmakers because of opposition in the business community.
Arguably the single best use of the State of the State platform in all my years here was by Gov. Lawton Chiles, who in his first year in 1991 held up a three-legged stool fashioned out of a log.
It was a great photo-op that made all the newspapers. But it also was the ol’ he-coon’s way of extending an olive branch to his partners in the House and Senate. The gesture was well-received, but before long those Democrats were at each others’ throats.
Then there was the time a few years ago when Scott wanted to rehearse his speech in the House chamber in private and his people threw a Tampa Bay Times reporter and photographer out of the workspace in the press gallery, even though they couldn’t hear Scott, who was not wearing a mike and was behind a glass partition.
Whatever Scott said in that 2014 speech was soon forgotten. So expectations for DeSantis on Tuesday won’t be very high.
Steve Bousquet is a columnist for the South Florida Sun Sentinel in Tallahassee. He can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 567-2240. Follow him on Twitter @stevebousquet.