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DeSantis Touts COVID-19 Decisions In State Of The State Address

Gov. Ron DeSantis gives the 2021 State of the State address.
Gov. Ron DeSantis gives the 2021 State of the State address.

Gov. Ron DeSantis tried to contrast Florida with what he described as a “calamitous reality” in other states of closed schools and shuttered businesses.

Gov. Ron DeSantis formally launched the 2021 legislative session Tuesday with a State of the State address that touted the state’s actions during the COVID-19 pandemic and touched on hot-button issues that lawmakers will face over the next 60 days.

DeSantis did not announce major new initiatives during the 28-minute speech but tried to contrast Florida with what he described as a “calamitous reality” in other states of closed schools and shuttered businesses.

Frequently interrupted by applause as he spoke in the House chamber, DeSantis said Florida had taken the right approach during the pandemic of focusing on caring for seniors, allowing businesses to reopen and making sure children could receive in-person instruction. He said the consequences of keeping students out of schools in other states will be “catastrophic and long-lasting.”

“The failure of so many places outside of Florida to open schools at the beginning of the school year will go down as one of the biggest policy blunders of our time,” DeSantis said.

He also said Florida will lower flags to half-staff Wednesday to honor people who have died of COVID-19 and their family members. About 31,000 Florida residents have died since the pandemic hit the state last March.

“We are saddened by the thousands of Floridians --- and hundreds of thousands of Americans --- who have died with COVID,” DeSantis said. “And we sympathize with the family members who in many instances were not even permitted to see their loved ones in person, either in the hospital or at a nursing home.”

The State of the State address is a traditional kickoff for the annual 60-day legislative session. The pandemic will shadow numerous major policy and budget decisions this year and has revamped the way the Legislature operates --- as was apparent Tuesday when senators watched the State of the State address on a video screen in their chamber, rather than walking across the Capitol’s fourth floor to join their House counterparts.

DeSantis’ themes about how the state has handled the pandemic largely echoed comments he has made for months. And while he offered an upbeat picture of the state, Democrats quickly criticized him Tuesday for not addressing issues such as expanding Medicaid to provide health care to more Floridians.

Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, said in a response to DeSantis’ speech that Republicans are “trying to convince Floridians that they’re the party of the people.”

“But their actions tell another, very different story,” Farmer said. “Their legislation does nothing for the average working person. They don’t help Floridians weather the pandemic until the economy rebounds, or spur good paying jobs. They don’t put food on the table or affordable health care within reach. They don’t better educate our kids or bring more accountability into the education system. And they certainly don’t help build a promising future.”

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, took issue with DeSantis’ priorities and said people in the state are “still suffering.”

“The priorities of the citizens of our state are making sure we are still wearing masks, that we are still social distancing, that we are protecting our environment, that we are making sure food is accessible to everybody,” Fried said.

As lawmakers have prepared for the session, Republican legislative leaders have repeatedly warned about likely budget reductions because the pandemic has cut into state tax revenues. But as he did when he released a $96.6 billion budget proposal in January, DeSantis offered a rosier financial picture Tuesday.

“The forecasts were dire. The 2021 legislative session was shaping up to be a fiscal nightmare,” he said. “I am pleased to report that our current fiscal outlook is much better than the bleak forecasts from last spring.”

Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.