The DeSantis Drafts: Records reveal Ron DeSantis' plans to strengthen his grip on state government
Florida's Republican governor has prepared plans that would expand his own executive power while simultaneously weakening institutions that challenge him
This is Seeking Rents, a newsletter and podcast devoted to producing original journalism — and lifting up the journalism of others — that examines the many ways that businesses influence public policy across Florida, written by Jason Garcia. Seeking Rents is free to all. But please consider a voluntary paid subscription, if you can afford it, to help support our work.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has drafted a far-reaching set of plans that would dramatically expand his authority, according to public records obtained by Seeking Rents and other organizations.
Legislation written by the Republican governor would both strengthen his own executive power and weaken some of the institutions most likely to challenge him.
The governor’s ideas include:
Giving himself more power to remove independently elected state attorneys and School Board members
Making it easier to sue newspapers and other publishers for libel and defamation — and harder to obtain public records from the state
Imposing more barriers to citizen-led campaigns to amend the state Constitution
Stripping oversight authority from the state’s independently elected Cabinet members and making it more difficult to legally challenge executive actions by the governor’s administration
Taking control of organizations that do everything from governing high school sports to building toll roads
These plans are on top of DeSantis’ proposal, first reported last week, to remake Florida’s higher education system in a way that centralizes more control of public colleges and universities under the governor’s political appointees, makes schools more dependent on funding controlled by politicians in Tallahassee, and imposes more restrictions on what students can be taught.
The governor’s office had all these ideas drafted into proposed legislation in the weeks leading up to this year’s legislative session, which began in January and ended in March. Copies of the drafts were obtained through a series of public-records requests — some made by Seeking Rents, which sought communications between the governor’s office and the Legislature, and others by American Oversight, a liberal watchdog group that sought communications related to the governor’s role in Florida’s redistricting process.
State legislators passed very little of these particular proposals into law during the session, although it’s not clear whether that’s because DeSantis opted not to forge ahead or because lawmakers blocked them. But DeSantis could decide to pursue any of these ideas in the future — particularly if he is re-elected this fall and then, as widely expected, launches a presidential campaign. The governor’s office declined to say whether DeSantis plans to resurrect any of these drafts.
And while none of these ideas have become law (yet), a number of thematically similar policies have.
Just this year, with DeSantis rhetorically flogging them along, Florida lawmakers have passed bills that establish a state militia that reports solely to the governor (HB 5003); create a team overseen by one of the governor’s appointees to investigate election “irregularities” (SB 524); give the governor more freedom to put whomever he wants into some key state government posts (SB 1658); restrict how public schools teach history (HB 7) and talk about sexual orientation and gender identity (HB 1557); redraw the state’s Congressional boundaries exactly as DeSantis wanted them (SB 2-C); and punish Walt Disney World for opposing one of DeSantis’ policy goals and halting its campaign contributions (SB 4-C).
It's a policymaking approach that emphasizes perceived cultural threats and the need for muscular executive power to combat them.
And it is a floor-to-ceiling window into how DeSantis would likely try to govern the country if he is elected president in 2024.
A note on the DeSantis drafts: What follows is a more detailed look at some of the proposed pieces of legislation that the governor’s office drafted earlier this year. But you don’t have to take my word for any of this. In each section, you’ll find a link to the actual draft so you can read the proposal for yourself. The drafts that were obtained through public-records requests made by American Oversight are stamped with their watermark.
School Boards and state attorneys
There was a minor furor this legislative session when Florida lawmakers considered a bill that would have eliminated salaries for School Board members and forced anyone who wanted to serve to do so for free.
It was one of those faux-populist ideas that some politicians specialize in — meant to exploit the frustrations ordinary people have with government while making it harder for ordinary people to do anything about it — and it ultimately failed to pass.
It tuns out that DeSantis liked the idea. Records show the governor included the proposal to eliminate School Board salaries in an education bill he drafted before session.
But the Florida governor’s plan went even further. DeSantis’ draft would have also given the governor the power to remove School Board members — and school district superintendents — for “malfeasance.”
The bill seemed deliberately aimed at further enflaming culture wars. That’s because “malfeasance” was only defined as a violation of one of a handful of education laws that have been at the center of recent school-board battlegrounds — such as the state’s “Parents Bill of Rights,” the section of state law that includes the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation that DeSantis signed earlier this year.
In that same vein, another DeSantis draft would have given the governor greater power to suspend local state attorneys for “neglect of duty” — which the proposal defined as any “blanket policy of non-prosecution.”
The goal was to prevent state attorneys, each of whom is independently elected, from enacting criminal-justice reform policies — like decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana or declining to ask judges to require cash bail of defendants accused of low-level, non-violent crimes, such as driving without a license or panhandling.
The most well-known example happened in 2017 when former Orlando-area State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced that she would no longer seek the death penalty in any cases — only to have former Gov. Rick Scott take more than two dozen cases away from her and angry lawmakers in Tallahassee slash her office’s funding by more than $1 million.
This DeSantis idea was filed as a bill: SB 1812, by former Republican state Sen. Manny Diaz (whom DeSantis just named the state’s secretary of education). It didn’t get a hearing.
But this seems like one of the ideas DeSantis is most likely to pursue down the road. He cares enough about it — or at least senses enough of a political advantage in it — that he included the issue in his State of the State Address at the start of the 2022 legislative session.
“We will not allow law enforcement to be defunded, bail to be eliminated, criminals to be prematurely released from prison or prosecutors to ignore the law,” DeSantis vowed during the speech.
Newspapers and public records
This one was first reported by Skyler Swisher of the Orlando Sentinel: DeSantis’ office wrote a bill to make it easier to sue newspapers and other media companies for libel or defamation.
The overarching goal was to overturn the United States Supreme Court’s 1964 decision in a case known as New York Times v. Sullivan. The landmark ruling said that the First Amendment sets a very high bar for any public figure who tries to sue the press for libel — they must prove not only that a statement was false or defamatory but that it was published with “actual malice.” That essentially means that a public figure must prove the news organization knew that it was publishing something false, or that it was recklessly ignorant.
The DeSantis draft sought to undermine that standard in a variety of ways. It would have limited the number of people who qualify as public figures, made it easier to demonstrate malice, and ordered judges to assume that any statement made by an anonymous source is false.
The legislation was almost certainly unconstitutional. But that was part of the point. In a memo promoting the proposal, the DeSantis administration revealed that it wanted to set up a legal challenge that would give the now-more-conservative Supreme Court an opening to overturn New York Times v. Sullivan — much the way the court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade.
But this was about more than just teeing up a federal lawsuit. The DeSantis draft would have also made subtler changes meant to incentivize lawsuits against news organizations.
It would have done so by creating an imbalance in the way attorney fees are awarded in defamation lawsuits, essentially allowing people and companies to file risk-free lawsuits against publishers.
First, it would have ensured that the person suing wouldn’t have to pay the publisher’s attorney fees even if the publisher wins the case. Second, it would have made the publisher pay attorney frees for the person who sued if the publisher unsuccessfully attempts to get the suit dismissed.
Meanwhile, another DeSantis draft would have used a similar mechanism to make it more difficult to pull public records out of his administration.
Right now, if a state agency refuses to provide public records — or drags its feet on fulfilling a request for an unreasonable length of time — you can sue to force the agency to turn over the records. And if you win, the court can make the agency pay your attorney fees, which can be very expensive.
The only catch is that you have to notify the agency that you intend to sue at least five days before you file the lawsuit. Pretty straightforward, right?
DeSantis’ proposal would have taken this very clear law and made it intentionally muddy.
Specifically, rather than making you wait five days before filing a lawsuit, the DeSantis draft would have required you to wait “beyond a reasonable period” of time from when you first requested the public records.
How long is “beyond a reasonable period,” exactly? The draft didn’t say.
So you’d have to wait longer before you could sue. And then you’d have to slog through even more litigation to determine whether you waited “beyond a reasonable period,” before you would find out whether the state would have to pay your legal fees in a successful public-records lawsuit.
The goal here seems clear: To dissuade people from filing public-records lawsuits by dragging out the process, making it more expensive, and adding more risk that you’ll have to pay your own legal fees even if you win.
Two years ago, more than 60 percent of Floridians — nearly 6.4 million voters in all — approved a constitutional amendment raising Florida’s minimum wage.
Ron DeSantis opposed that amendment. And now he has developed plans that could prevent anything like it from ever passing again.
The records show DeSantis’ office drafted two proposed constitutional amendments that would make it harder to amend the state constitution in the future. (In both cases, the new restrictions would only have applied to amendments proposed by citizen-led petition drives — and not to amendments put on the ballot by politicians in Tallahassee.)
The first proposal would have required any proposed amendment to pass by at least 60 percent of the vote — in each of Florida’s 67 counties.
It’s hard to overstate how much easier that would make things for opponents trying to kill a proposed constitutional amendment, even one with overwhelming support across the state. For instance, the low-wage employers who fought the minimum wage amendment in 2020 could have focused all their advertising power in a place like Liberty County, which has fewer than 8,000 people. A few thousand “no” votes in one tiny corner of Florida could trump millions of “yes” votes across the state.
This would basically be fantasy-come-to-life for the Florida Chamber of Commerce and giant businesses like Florida Power & Light, Florida Crystals Corp. and Walt Disney World.
The second proposal would have forbidden Floridians from proposing any amendment that would repeal “a fundamental right” enumerated in Article I of the state constitution.
Now, most of what’s in Article I is pretty universally popular. But not all of it is. For instance, Article I includes a ban on same-sex marriage, which voters enshrined in the state constitution in 2008.
That state ban is currently moot, because of the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. But the Supreme Court is far more conservative today than it was then, and there is growing fear among LGBTQ+ Americans that the court may overturn that decision, too, particularly given its impending decision to revoke abortion rights.
So Florida’s same-sex marriage ban could suddenly become very important once again. And some of Florida’s most far-right religious activists are fighting to keep it in the constitution.
This past session, at Ron DeSantis’ request, Florida lawmakers passed a bill giving DeSantis more freedom to appoint whomever he wants to run some key state agencies, including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Veteran Affairs.
But DeSantis wanted far more autonomy than that. One of the bills his office drafted called for a reorganization of the state’s executive branch that would have given him more freedom to bypass the state’s independently elected Cabinet — which includes the Attorney General, the Chief Financial Officer and the Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs.
This proposed legislation dug deep into the plumbing of state government.
Just a few examples: It would have given the governor’s administration unilateral authority to approve large community development districts for developers, decide appeals over local land-use decisions, and review water-management rules. It would have even given the governor the power to remove a major environmental-protection designation for the Florida Keys.
The draft would have given the governor more control over the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, too.
(Update: Stick tap to reporter Gray Rohrer, who flagged that DeSantis has pushed this idea in previous years, too.)
The roughly 150-page piece of legislation included a preamble that made the governor’s goals quite clear:
“It is the intent of the Legislature to pursue a state executive structure more aligned with the federal system in order to promote greater accountability and efficiency,” the bill began. “When America’s founding fathers designed our Federal Government structure, they intentionally chose a system in which there was a unitary executive. The founders very consciously declined to sap the executive’s strength by dividing the executive power and instead vested the executive power in one elected individual, believing that an energetic executive is the leading character in the definition of good government. The changes made herein reflect the Legislature’s intent to move away from a plural executive structure toward more unitary executive governance that encourages greater accountability in the democratic process and efficiencies in government.”
DeSantis also drafted a smaller bill that would have expanded his authority in a subtler way.
That legislation would have imposed more limits on the amount of attorney fees that could be awarded in lawsuits challenging executive actions by the governor’s administration, including rules written by his agencies.
The more you limit attorney fees, of course, the less likely an attorney is to take on a case.
High-school sports and toll roads
Finally, DeSantis also drew up plans to take over other entities entirely.
One example: his staff wrote a bill that would have given the governor total control over the Florida High School Athletic Association, the nonprofit organization that governs high school sports.
The FHSAA is currently run by a 16-member board of directors, only one of whom is ultimately chosen by the governor (the state education commissioner, who has a guaranteed board seat).
The DeSantis plan would have given the governor all 16 board picks.
It’s not clear why the governor wanted to take over the FHSAA. But DeSantis has targeted the organization in the past — most notably last year, when he signed an incendiary, anti-transgender law that overturned an FHSAA policy allowing transgender kids to play on teams that align with their gender identity.
Another example: The governors’ office drew up a bill to boost its efforts to abolish the locally controlled Miami-Dade Expressway Authority and replace it with a state-controlled Greater Miami Expressway Authority.
DeSantis and Republican lawmakers have been trying to take over Miami-Dade’s toll roads since 2019, but the effort has stalled in court. DeSantis’ new draft was designed to shore up weaknesses on the state’s side of that case.
This proposal surfaced in a late-session amendment on the floor of the Florida House, where it was sponsored by Rep. Bryan Avila, a Republican from Miami Springs who is now running for state Senate — with an endorsement from DeSantis. The legislation failed to pass the Senate.
But like so many of these DeSantis drafts, that’s probably not the last we’ve heard of it.