What did Ron DeSantis really work on last session? A year later, his office still won’t say.
Happy Sunshine Week...to all who celebrate.
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Today is an anniversary of sorts.
Exactly one year ago, a day after the Florida Legislature concluded its 2022 session, I submitted a request for public records to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office.
Specifically, I asked for all emails sent or received by DeSantis’ director of legislative affairs between Jan. 1 and March 15 of last year.
The governor’s legislative affairs director is essentially his chief lobbyist and primary point of contact with members of the Legislature. Her emails would be a window into what DeSantis was working on behind the scenes during last year’s session, which ran from Jan. 11 to March 14.
Now, while this is a very simple and straightforward request, it’s also admittedly pretty substantial. So the governor’s office and I went back and forth for a few weeks, and I eventually agreed to narrow the request down to only emails on her official state account and only emails sent or received between Feb. 1 and March 15 — basically, the final six weeks of session.
After another few weeks of pestering, the Governor’s Office finally sent me an estimate of what it would cost to fulfill this request, which it said had generated “over 5,850 items.”
The estimate was for $4,759.12. I agreed to it on June 1.
Nine-and-a-half months later, the DeSantis administration has yet to produce a single email in response to this request.
Now, you might be wondering what the big deal is here. DeSantis is on television all the time, telling the world what he wants the Florida Legislature to do. This session alone, he’s called on Florida lawmakers to block vaccine requirements in schools and businesses, crack down on “woke” investing by banks and financial firms, and take in-state tuition away from the children of undocumented immigrants, among many other plans.
But the issues that Ron DeSantis talks about in public are not the only issues he has his staff work on in private.
Two years ago, for instance, DeSantis aides helped the Walt Disney Co. get a carveout from a law meant to stop censorship by tech companies. They worked on a tax break that could have saved Disney tens of millions of dollars in corporate taxes. And they pushed a law to squeeze local newspapers by cutting government advertising.
Last year, DeSantis staffers asked the Legislature to delay a gas-tax break until just before the governor’s re-election. They also worked with gas-station lobbyists to weaken enforcement of that same tax break. And they tried to help a developer run by a big Republican donor pass a bill that would have made it easier to convert affordable housing into more expensive, market-rate apartments.
We only know about any of that because of public records.
This stuff isn’t just important for understanding what happened in the past, either. It also offers clues to what’s coming in the future.
For example, a series of public records requests that were fulfilled last year by the Florida Legislature — not the Governor’s Office — showed that DeSantis’ office was quietly developing plans to impose far more state control over universities and colleges, weaken libel and defamation protections for news organizations and others, and seize command of the nonprofit that runs high school sports.
All are now big policy battles during the current legislative session, which began last week and continues until May 5.
I bring all this up now because this week is “Sunshine Week,” an annual event that Florida newspapers launched 21 years ago to celebrate Florida’s century-long commitment to open government, emphasize the importance of access to public records and meetings — and to warn against efforts by politicians to erode these rights.
We’re seeing more of that than ever before in Florida right now. For instance, the Florida Center for Government Accountability says around five dozen bills have been filed in the Legislature this session that would conceal more government records or close more public meetings — including details about Ron DeSantis’ travel. (See House Bill 1495 and Senate Bill 1616.)
Meanwhile, the DeSantis administration is trying to get courts to rule that it can ignore some public records requests entirely.
And, of course, it is slow-walking responses to other requests. (Seeking Rents is not the only organization that experienced this.)
As Barbara Petersen, the executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, told the Associated Press:
“The state of sunshine is in peril.”
One last thing: If you’ve read this far, please consider a voluntary paid subscription to Seeking Rents. Your support helps us pay for things like fees for public records…when they finally get released.