House moves bill letting Gov. DeSantis appoint DEP head despite Senate delay
Shawn Hamilton is back. Image via Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Shawn Hamilton
'This bill should have been done 20 years ago. It should definitely be done now.'

The House has diverged from the Senate by advancing a bill allowing the Governor to appoint a leader of Florida’s top environmental agency without the Cabinet’s approval.

The measure has implications for the upcoming election. The proposal (HB 1295), carried by Sarasota Republican Rep. Tommy Gregory, would reset the appointments structure for the heads of several agencies, including the Department of Environmental Protection. Members of the House State Affairs Committee voted 15-5 Thursday to advance the bill.

Recent controversy surrounding the measure originates from the summer, when Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Shawn Hamilton as interim DEP Secretary. DeSantis then moved to make the appointment permanent. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat looking to challenge DeSantis in this year’s gubernatorial contest, contends the Governor lacks the legal authority to appoint Hamilton without the Cabinet’s unanimous support and without a public interview.

Democrats on the State Affairs Committee voted against the measure despite Gregory and Republicans arguing the bill was fixing government inefficiency because DEP is an agency under the Governor, not the Cabinet.

“This has nothing to do with the balance of power, nothing to do with who’s currently in the roles,” Gregory said. “It doesn’t make sense for the Governor to go through the Cabinet to appoint somebody to an executive agency.”

That didn’t soothe Democrats’ concerns, including those of St. Petersburg Democratic Rep. Michele Rayner. She questioned the timing of the bill.

“It seems that the timing of this bill is ill-timed. And it, to me, seems that it’s a power grab,” Rayner said.

Lecanto Republican Rep. Ralph Massullo, Chair of the State Affairs Committee, told the panel that members tend to live in the moment. But he argued the bill would make Florida’s government more efficient and more akin to the federal government’s structure.

“Our duty here is to plan for the future of our state, regardless of the personalities, regardless of who’s in office at the time,” Massullo said.

The Senate was set to fast-track a version of the bill (SB 1658), carried by Fernandina Beach Republican Sen. Aaron Bean, through the committee process this week. But before the bill was set to pass Tuesday through its first of two committee stops, the bill was postponed to be “fine-tuned.”

Fried took issue with the timing of the bill when it was filed this month.

“Unfortunately, this is par for the course when it comes to transparency from Florida Republicans. DeSantis is too scared to have a real discussion about the DEP nominee so instead, he’s having his allies in the Legislature change the whole appointee process and circumvent oversight from the Cabinet. Maybe now he’ll stop canceling meetings and start doing the state’s business,” Fried asserted, in response to an inquiry from Florida Politics.

Hamilton has yet to appear before the Cabinet for a public hearing, as stipulated under the 2015 Weidner Settlement Agreement. That settlement arose from a legal dispute against DeSantis’ predecessor, Rick Scott, demanding more openness for Scott’s appointments.

The settlement, which the state agreed to, required public hearings of certain appointments, regardless of whether the Cabinet had a vote.

Bean was not willing to say whether the bill was intended to check Fried, saying only that “it makes the DEP Secretary, like so many other secretaries, serve at the pleasure of the Governor.”

Gregory said the proposal stems from the reorganization of the Cabinet, which condensed in 2003 from six members to three members. Defending the bill’s timing, he said Cabinet members are always running for Governor, and the politics behind the scenes might explain why such a measure hasn’t been passed before.

“When you inject politics into administrative bureaucracy, it makes government inefficient,” Gregory said. “This bill should have been done 20 years ago. It should definitely be done now.”

Under both bills, the Governor’s DEP Secretary appointments must still go through the Senate.

There will likely be little meaningful pushback in the Senate against the appointment of Hamilton. Hamilton has served 13 years at DEP. He has served as Interim Secretary since June 2021 and was Deputy Secretary of Lands and Recreation before that.

Even Fried said she would have voted for Hamilton.

The timing of the TP is notable, coming just days after the Governor’s Office submitted a congressional redistricting map differing radically from the maps from the Senate and House.

The House bill does more than address DEP. It also would reimagine the Executive Director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles as a Secretary appointed by the Governor with the Senate’s confirmation. The bill would put executive directors of the Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Veteran Affairs to a majority vote from the Governor and Cabinet.

Gregory’s bill would take effect in July. Meanwhile, Bean’s version would take effect immediately.

The House version next heads to the Judiciary Committee. The Senate version was previously scheduled to be heard in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Rules Committee, but must be rescheduled for hearings before those panels.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.

One comment

  • Kathy

    January 20, 2022 at 11:46 am

    This is ridiculous. Our “representatives” don’t represent us and our Governor does what he pleases while the trump followers cheer. We the people who are true Patriots are getting screwed and the Government does as it pleases. If you have enough money, any office can be bought.

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