As a candidate, incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis offered little policy on the campaign trail, opting instead to lean into the endorsement of President Donald Trump and focus on a few statewide issues.
But when he is inaugurated Tuesday, the former Northeast Florida congressman will have to quickly take up the state’s most pressing challenges, beyond his regular talking points on the environment, education and the economy.
He has already begun to signal his stances on core issues through agency appointments, some reaching across the aisle, and the handful of transition advisory committees that have shared policy advice for DeSantis and his team. Those early glimpses of DeSantis indicate that he may govern more from the center than his initially outsider campaign suggested. But much of his agenda remains to be seen.
In an op-ed written for newspapers statewide Sunday, DeSantis said he intends to move quickly in the first days of his administration, namely on selecting three state Supreme Court justices to fill impending vacancies. “My judicial appointees will interpret the law, be willing to reverse bad precedent and not legislate from the bench,” he wrote.
DeSantis is also expected to move quickly on the environment, which he has called a top priority and was arguably his signature campaign issue. Calling himself a “Teddy Roosevelt-style Republican,” he focused on restoring the Everglades and maintaining Florida’s environment in a four-part policy plan (his first of the election cycle).
DeSantis’ plan to protect the state’s water supply and beaches by banning fracking and drilling off the coast didn’t come up as often during calls with his transition advisers, but they did discuss getting a better grasp on controlling state-managed lands and deploying the Department of Environmental Protection to better monitor waterways.
“We’ve done a really good job at buying land, but not taking care of it,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Joshua Kellam said on an environmental committee conference call. “We need to focus efforts on taking care of land the state has acquired.”
DeSantis also spoke frequently during the campaign about school choice, and early transition meetings make clear the new governor intends to carry through his support of expanding Florida’s voucher-like scholarship programs, which grant public money for students to attend private schools. DeSantis’ commitment to these policies was further cemented with his pick of former House Speaker Richard Corcoran, an aggressive advocate for charter schools and school choice policies, to be commissioner of education.
DeSantis has also said that 80 percent of all education funding should be spent “in the classroom,” claiming there is administrative waste.
His transition’s educational advisory committee began wrangling with that campaign promise in one of its meetings, saying the first step will be defining what “in the classroom” encompasses.
“We’ve got to have bus drivers, food service people — I’m not saying we’re totally top heavy — but there are some things we could look at privatizing to save some money or cooperating to achieve that number,” said Andy Tuck, the vice chairman of the State Board of Education, during one of the committee meetings. “That being said ... it’s going to be a pretty tough goal to meet.”
On an education committee conference call just after Christmas, advisers also emphasized that the new governor must continue to empower parents and allocate more money to voucher-like scholarships to sate the massive waiting list of recipients.
DeSantis has also made some moves on healthcare, though the issue was not a core priority in his campaign. He tapped Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, a former Jackson Health executive, to helm a transition panel focusing on reducing healthcare costs and increasing health “innovation” as well as addressing substance abuse and behavioral health needs.
His first appointments in healthcare and human services suggest he will focus on trimming their outsized share of the state budget: Chad Poppell, tapped to run the Department of Children and Families, previously ran the state’s Department of Management Services under Rick Scott.
He also selected Trump’s top Medicaid official Mary Mayhew, who tightened Medicaid eligibility standards while health commissioner in Maine, to run the Agency for Health Care Administration. Mayhew’s selection in particular also signals Medicaid expansion, which the Legislature had flirted with in the past, is likely to remain a non-starter during his governorship.
That hasn’t stopped some in his early transition meetings from proposing ways to tap into more money through the signature safety-net program, particularly for funding behavioral health, a priority which DeSantis mentioned in his Sunday op-ed.
When asked Monday if Mayhew or the administration would consider adding work requirements for Medicaid or implement similar tests for other programs, Nuñez sidestepped the question, saying the administration was focused on ensuring Medicaid recipients “have access to the best quality healthcare.”
“I think we’ll take a look to make sure we protect the integrity of the [Medicaid] program,” she said. “We want to make sure Medicaid functions for the recipients that currently avail themselves of Medicaid.”
DeSantis hasn’t taken strong stances on criminal justice issues, although his rhetoric has been tougher than some of his Republican colleagues.
During the campaign, he criticized his opponent, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, over the city’s high crime rate. And he advocated for mandatory minimum sentences — the same policies that President Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans overhauled last month.
For all these different ideas about what his policies should be, DeSantis told reporters on Monday that he’s willing to have an open mind but didn’t reveal much more, saying he first wanted to review new criminal justice data that will be collected by the state per a bill passed last year.
“At the end of the day, our responsibility is to protect the public, hold people accountable. But I want to do that as cost-effectively as possible,” DeSantis said. “If people are actually not a danger to society and they’ve served enough time, I don’t think we want to be spending more money but you’ve got to do that in an intelligent way.”
DeSantis’ advisory committee on public safety struck a similar tone.
“Please, as we move forward, do not retract the things that got us this low crime rate,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd told the committee last month.
The committee has yet to make any recommendations to the governor-elect, but its chairman said they’re likely to focus on school safety issues in the wake of the Parkland massacre.
Multiple sheriffs and parents of children killed in the shooting urged their colleagues on the committee to allow police more discretion over when to arrest students for threats of violence.
Juvenile Justice, Corrections
In contrast, DeSantis’ appointments to lead the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Corrections may have a different ideology that more strongly favors reforms to make the justice system more rehabilitative.
Mark Inch, the retired two-star Army general and former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, reportedly resigned after frustrations with the Trump administration. Inch also penned an op-ed in December in The Daily Caller that supported the First Step Act, saying “rehabilitation is an honorable and integral calling of the corrections professional.”
Simone Marstiller, who was picked to lead DJJ, is a former appellate judge, state agency head and assistant general counsel to Gov. Jeb Bush. She’s also on the executive committee of Florida State University’s Project on Accountable Justice, a criminal justice think tank that aims to “change Florida’s expensive and outmoded practices of mass incarceration,” according to their website. The project has advocated for reforms such as granting juvenile offenders civil citations as an alternative to arrests, for example.
Deborrah Brodsky, the director of the project, said Marstiller’s selection is extremely encouraging because it signifies a decision by the DeSantis administration to continue reforms in juvenile justice that prioritize prevention and treatment.
“This isn’t just, ‘We’re going to keep things going.’ It’s a statement that says: ‘We are looking to really address some of the issues Florida has long faced and that we’ve inherited and are ready to bring in the proper leadership to tackle,’ ” Brodsky said.
As for the tough-on-crime positions from DeSantis’ transition advisory committee, she said she’s optimistic that the agency selections are more indicative of the new administration’s policy leanings than the transition’s temporary advisory groups. Brodsky was a volunteer on Scott’s transition team eight years ago.
“If you look back those transition advisory committee reports, they were amazing, and the governor didn’t listen much to those reports,” Brodsky said. “If history repeats itself that would be beneficial here.”
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporters Lawrence Mower and Samantha J. Gross contributed to this report.