TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a small-government conservative, is making unprecedented use of his executive power during the coronavirus pandemic — but only when it suits his politics.
The battleground-state Republican has quarantined out-of-state visitors, spent hundreds of millions of dollars without legislative approval, and ignored constitutional deadlines for judicial appointments. He’s also used his emergency power to enact a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. On Monday, his administration ordered local schools to open or risk financial ruin. And he’s gotten little to no resistance from Republicans who control the Legislature.
Yet DeSantis, as he confronts a growing viral outbreak and polls showing President Donald Trump trailing Democrat Joe Biden in Florida ahead of the November election, simultaneously has argued that he lacks authority to alter election law or increase unemployment benefits, issues that could break the wrong way politically for him — and the president.
The result, critics charge, is an ideologically driven response to a growing economic and public health crisis.
“Ordinarily the Legislature would not defer such sweeping policy discussions or cede its authority,” said state Sen. Tom Lee, a former GOP Senate president who has clashed with previous governors. But legislators have deferred to DeSantis now “because they trust his judgment.”
“They understand that we are governing in a hyper-partisan environment four months from a presidential election, that it is hard to legislate in such a fluid environment and that a special session raises genuine health and public safety concerns and is subject to being hijacked for partisan theatrics,” Lee said.
Senate President Bill Galvano, a Republican, said DeSantis has “earned the confidence of legislative leadership.”
Democrats counter that DeSantis has been given a blank check to do he wants with no legislative oversight.
“They are making the argument to fit whatever they want to do and they are rationalizing what they are not doing,’’ said state Sen. Gary Farmer, the incoming Senate Democrat leader. “All of their actions are contrary to the rule of law as far as I can tell.”
But it’s not known whether anyone will mount a legal challenge to what DeSantis is doing. The Florida Supreme Court on June 25 quickly dispensed with a lawsuit that claimed the governor couldn’t use his emergency powers during a pandemic.
“It’s not a penalty until someone throws a flag,” one Republican lawmaker said.
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a friend and ally of the governor, defended DeSantis’ use of power, pointing out that he lifted restrictions on vacation rentals after getting feedback from local officials — especially in the Panhandle.
“I have observed a healthy give and take,” Gaetz said.
The Florida governor’s office once was considered among the weakest in the nation, hemmed in by a system imposed after the Civil War that divided power among other elected officials. But the office has changed in the last two decades due to voter-approved referendums and governors who have chosen to use their power creatively.
Florida law gives the governor greater executive leeway during a declared emergency, power intended to help the state respond to hurricanes.
After Covid-19 hit Florida, DeSantis declared an emergency on March 9, a declaration that he has extended twice, most recently on Tuesday.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist used his emergency power to extend early voting hours in 2008, a move that some Republicans thought helped President Barack Obama, a Democrat, win the state.
Crist, a Republican at the time, went even further two years later, extending unemployment benefits during the Great Recession without the Legislature’s approval.
DeSantis has gone further, especially in his decision to spend millions of dollars in CARES Act federal aid with no input from lawmakers. By contrast, after the financial collapse, it was the Legislature that ultimately determined how the state would spend federal stimulus funds.
Republican Jeb Bush, Florida’s governor from 1999 to 2007, called the state’s emergency powers “very expansive.”
“However, that does not mean they have to be used evenly or to the fullest extent allowed by law,” Bush said in an email. “Yes, there are limits, but I am uncertain if the concept has been litigated in Florida.”
The DeSantis administration’s move to reopen schools has drawn the most scrutiny. Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on Monday ordered school districts to open classrooms for five days a week beginning in August. Districts must submit reopening plans, which must be approved before they can qualify for their share of state funding.
Three South Florida districts have maintained they aren’t bound by the order because they’re still in phase one of their coronavirus reopening
Ron Meyer, a Tallahassee attorney who has represented the state’s teachers unions in constitutional cases, called the Corcoran order “overreach” and said it conflicts with a provision in Florida’s Constitution that assigns control of public schools to local school boards.
But while the DeSantis administration pushes ahead to open schools — a position that aligns with Trump — the governor has refused pleas from Democratic legislators to increase unemployment benefits.
Florida’s system caps jobless aid at $ 275 a week, making it one of the country’s least generous.
DeSantis has said he can’t increase the amount without legislative approval.
That argument rings hollow given how the governor has used his emergency powers so far, said state Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat.
“I would have more respect for them if they said they don’t want to,” Braynon said. “Just be honest and say you don’t want to do it. Don’t hide behind excuses.”