Trying to pick the Top 10 state government stories is a subjective pursuit, to say the least, but here are the FloridaPolitics.com picks for the passing year:
The summer surge
Florida had its worst-case surge since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in late summer because of the explosion of the delta variant.
The state peaked at 27,669 daily cases on Aug. 26, according to data maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, followed by a commensurate spike in deaths. The pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 62,000 Floridians since March 2020. Nearly two-thirds of them have died since New Year’s Day 2021; two in five died since the end of July.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who rolled out an ongoing publicity campaign urging people to get vaccinated in the first part of 2021, reacted to the rise in cases by setting up monoclonal antibody treatment centers across the state.
The first treatment center opened in Jacksonville in mid-August. As the Governor crisscrossed the state opening similar clinics, he chided federal authorities for not doing more to promote the antibody treatment, which is effective in preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-19 if administered soon after the infection is detected. It is less effective against omicron, though that variant was months away from discovery at the height of the delta surge.
DeSantis would later explain his pivot toward encouraging treatment rather than vaccination was in response to flattening vaccination numbers. He pinned the rise of vaccine hesitancy and resistance on the Biden administration’s mandate strategy. His critics, meanwhile, said he was flirting with vaccine skeptics to build support ahead of a potential presidential bid in 2024.
He also said — and continues to say — that COVID-19 will never be fully eradicated, necessitating strong messaging on COVID-19 treatment.
Back to school … with masks
The state Board of Education was quick on the draw to enforce Florida’s ban on mask mandates in public schools even as parents, districts and the federal government challenged the state’s authority in classrooms and in court.
The school masking fight absorbed Florida’s — and at times, the nation’s — news cycle over the summer and into the early months of the 2021-22 school year. Florida, at the time, was at the zenith of the delta surge.
At one point, more than half of Florida’s public school students were attending school in districts with a mask mandate. And in October, the Board of Education determined eight districts were violating state rules, which required parents be given the ability to opt their children out of mask requirements.
Superintendents argued their districts complied because they are compelled to protect students, and they left in place pathways for mask-averse parents to exempt their children. But the opt-out avenues didn’t satisfy the Department of Education.
“Districts are required to follow these policies,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran told the Board of Education. “They can’t pick and choose which parts of the law they want to follow.”
The Board of Education withheld funds from multiple school districts that violated the state’s masking rules. However, that led the state and federal governments to trade blows — the state punished districts by withholding funds equivalent to school board member paychecks; the feds struck back by cutting checks to replace the withheld funds.
But by mid-November, when the delta surge was on the downswing, all school districts had ditched their mask mandates.
Special Session II
DeSantis took direct aim at vaccine mandates imposed by the Biden administration by calling legislators into a November Special Session.
State lawmakers responded by passing several bills, including one that barred employers from requiring their employees to get COVID-19 shots unless they provided several exemptions, including for health or religious reasons.
“Nobody should lose their job due to heavy-handed COVID mandates and we had a responsibility to protect the livelihoods of the people of Florida,” DeSantis said when he signed the bills into law.
DeSantis pressed legislators for the Special Session while at the same time Florida took up legal challenges against federal mandates dealing with federal contractors, health care providers and large employers.
The Governor did not get everything he asked from state lawmakers, as GOP leaders quietly rejected his call to strip private companies of COVID-19 liability protections if they imposed vaccine mandates.
During the brief Session, lawmakers passed four bills, including one that repealed a nearly two-decade-old law that gave the state surgeon general the power to order vaccinations during a public health emergency. Another law started the process for Florida to possibly take over workplace safety regulation from the federal government.
Democrats decried the Special Session as a waste of time designed to garner more attention for DeSantis’ potential presidential aspirations.
“This is political theater,” charged Dania Beach Rep. Evan Jenne, one of the House Democratic leaders.
Nine-figure budgets, padded by Biden bucks
With a little bit of help from the federal government, Florida’s 2021-22 budget was the fattest in state history at $101.5 billion.
Billions in federal pandemic assistance bolstered the state budget and paved the way for bonus checks for teachers, principals and first responders. Federal spending also provided support for the state’s troubled unemployment portal, seaports and infrastructure projects.
DeSantis frequently touted the federally funded portions of his budget, even going on victory tours to celebrate the provisions. But despite praising the federal windfall, the Governor opposed the American Rescue Plan, arguing it was formulated to benefit so-called “lockdown states” while shortchanging those that reopened faster.
“But we’ll make the best of what we have, and I think we’ll be able to get a lot done for the people of Florida,” DeSantis said in March.
Heading into the 2022 Session, DeSantis is pushing for another $100 billion budget. The Governor dubbed his spending plan the “Freedom First” budget and claims it’s made possible because of his pro-economic growth response to the pandemic. However, his proposed budget is once again buoyed by federal dollars.
DeSantis’ proposal for the coming fiscal year tallies $99.7 billion, but additional spending not included in that mark would total more than $100 billion.
Signed, sealed … derailed
After years of estrangement, Florida and the Seminole Tribe hammered out a blockbuster gaming deal.
The Gaming Compact, if implemented, guarantees $2.5 billion in state revenue over the next five years, $6 billion over the next decade, and opens the door for online sports betting in Florida.
But the deal is on the ropes after a federal judge ruled the sports betting provisions represent an unlawful expansion of gaming outside of tribal lands. Despite the sports betting provisions being severable, the court tossed the entire deal just before Thanksgiving.
It was an unexpected outcome, to say the least. A blame game followed, with DeSantis faulting the Biden administration for putting up a flaccid defense in court.
“It was not something that they seemed to put their best foot forward on,” DeSantis said in December.
Brevard County Republican Rep. Randy Fine, a former casino executive who chaired the House Select Committee on Gaming, was more explicit: “I don’t know if Joe Biden is just stupid or incompetent, but he owes the state of Florida $500 million a year,” Fine said.
However, the ruling didn’t stop DeSantis from including the anticipated gaming funds in his budget proposal for the coming fiscal year.
The Compact and resulting Special Session precipitated other gaming storylines. Apart from the court trouble in Washington, the Compact faces constitutional questions in Florida. And the Tribe and Las Vegas Sands have been locked in a battle on a ballot initiative that could open the door for new casinos at existing, nontribal gaming facilities.
Own the libs
Republicans flexed their legislative muscle in 2021, passing with ease a slew of controversial bills despite vocal protest by outnumbered Democratic lawmakers.
GOP lawmakers paraded several controversial bills onto DeSantis’ desk this year, including a measure to stiffen penalties against rioters, a measure the Governor championed.
The so-called “anti-riot bill” was the most contentious piece of legislation last Session. Among other effects, it intensified criminal and civil penalties against rioters and included a provision allowing state leaders to thwart local “defund the police” efforts.
DeSantis touted the bill after a spree of riots and protests spurred by fatal police shootings, including the killing of George Floyd, which ignited America’s “summer of protest.”
Democrats and activists warned the bill would have a chilling effect on free speech, but their cries fell on deaf ears in the Republican-dominated Legislature.
Legislation cracking down on Big Tech also sparked discord. With DeSantis urging them on, Republicans motored a bill to his desk that would limit social media control over what and who appears on their platforms. DeSantis pitched the measure after Silicon Valley smashed former President Donald Trump with the ban hammer.
The Democratic carnage, frankly, is likely to continue into the New Year. The Governor’s latest target: critical race theory.
Coined the “Stop WOKE Act,” DeSantis’ latest slab of red meat would weed out traces of the theory, which examines the government’s role in perpetuating racial inequity and strife. It, like the protest and Big Tech bills before it, seems likely to thrust Democratic lawmakers onto the ropes of the state’s political arena.
In October, the Governor announced his wife, First Lady Casey DeSantis, had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Casey is a true fighter, and she will never, never, never give up,” the Governor vowed when he announced the diagnosis.
The announcement sent shockwaves through Florida’s political community and led to an outpouring of bipartisan support for the 41-year-old mother of three.
“It does make a difference,” the Governor said of the well wishes in November. “It increases your spirits. It gives you … more of a will to fight. And I’ve seen that up close and personal firsthand.”
The First Lady is undergoing treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, and while there have been few updates on her condition, she has made several public appearances since the announcement.
The First Lady was an accomplished TV host — she has an Emmy Award in her trophy case — before she met the Governor and eventually married him in 2010. The couple have three children: Madison, Mason and Mamie. Madison, the eldest, turned 5 in November.
An Ohio native, the First Lady has been a powerful advocate for mental health awareness during the first half of her husband’s term. Among the several initiatives she has spearheaded is Hope for Healing, which aims to address mental illness and substance abuse with an emphasis on children, veterans and first responders.
While Casey continues to flex her position to further mental health initiatives, she has taken the vanguard in advocating for a boost to cancer research funding in the state budget.
Florida ‘can’t rest on its laurels’
Despite a historic number of mail ballots and early voting — and record turnout overall — Florida’s electoral votes were put in the Trump column shortly after the polls closed on Election Day 2020. Outside a handful of legislative and local races, it was smooth sailing down-ballot, too.
In other words, Florida didn’t Florida.
DeSantis was among the first to praise the state’s drama-free performance. He and other Republican leaders touted Florida as the gold standard in election laws after the 2020 campaign, and many Democrats agreed.
However, Republicans said they wanted to build on those successes, and so Florida found itself among the many Republican-led states implementing new voting laws following the 2020 election, the results of which were harshly contested despite a dearth of evidence indicating widespread voter fraud.
In a Fox News exclusive, DeSantis signed a bill erecting “guardrails” around vote-by-mail ballots and more, provisions that drew accusations of voter suppression from Democrats, who compared it to a law passed in Georgia months earlier.
The bill has drawn multiple court challenges, including from the NAACP and the League of Women Voters.
It was the second elections bill DeSantis had signed in three years, but he’s already eying a threequel — in November, he proposed an “election integrity” measure that included establishing elections police, possibly a tough sell politically.
“If somebody brings a sack of ballots and they’re stuffing them in a dropbox, you have a place that will field these complaints and will immediately be able to investigate and hold them accountable,” DeSantis said.
The Governor says he opposes drop boxes altogether. However, as he groused in November, key Republican lawmakers support drop boxes.
After years of growth in Florida, particularly along Interstate 4, lawmakers have been tasked with squeezing another congressional district into Central Florida.
The Legislature is set during the coming Session to finalize what district maps Florida will use at the state and federal levels for the next decade. Lawmakers have already proposed two visions in initial drafts, one set that has received bipartisan praise and another, proposed exclusively in the House, that aggressively pushes a Republican majority.
The map-drawing comes amid pressure from Republicans nationally to flip the U.S. House next year. However, Florida Republicans are cognizant their maps must survive the inevitable legal challenges that will befall them.
There are four current congressional map drafts in the Senate Reapportionment Committee and two in the Florida House Redistricting Committee. All would split Tampa into multiple districts, a change from years past.
Most maps put the new district along the I-4 corridor, most likely in Polk County, complicating Tampa’s congressional makeup.
Sen. Ray Rodrigues, the Estero Republican who chairs the Senate Reapportionment Committee, said anyone who thinks changes must be made to drafts should act sooner rather than later. The Senate could finalize its proposed maps in the first week or weeks of Session.
If you’re coming off a yearlong sabbatical, odds are the faces in DeSantis’ office are unfamiliar.
While roster changes are common after the halfway point in a Governor’s term, some moves are more notable than others, including the appointment of a new Surgeon General amid a pandemic.
In September, the Governor announced Dr. Joseph Ladapo, previously an associate professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, would replace Dr. Scott Rivkees as leader of the Florida Department of Health.
The pair are worlds apart. Rivkees spent much of his last year on the job out of public view. Ladapo, meanwhile, appears with the Governor often and is an equally outspoken critic of heavy-handed public health measures.
DeSantis’ communications shop underwent an overhaul, too. In April, the Governor tapped Taryn Fenske to serve as communications director. A longtime communications pro, Fenske filled a months-long vacancy left by her predecessor, Fred Piccolo.
Press secretary Christina Pushaw also joined the communications team, replacing former spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice.
Pushaw made waves throughout the year by aggressively challenging reporters and others on social media. Twitter temporarily suspended Pushaw’s account in August after she urged Twitter users to “drag” a journalist.
Similarly, the position of Chief of Staff underwent changes. After nearly three years of serving the Governor, Adrian Lukis departed the administration in August. His tenure as Chief of Staff was brief — he was promoted to the position after DeSantis’ longtime lieutenant, Shane Strum, left the administration to become CEO of Broward Health in February.
In late September, James Uthmeier was announced as DeSantis’ third Chief of Staff. He entered the administration in March 2019 as Deputy General Counsel in the Governor’s legal office, though the Georgetown law graduate came on board with experience as a senior adviser and counsel to former U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Florida Politics reporters Jason Delgado, Renzo Downey, Christine Jordan Sexton and Drew Wilson contributed to this report.