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Education & Environment Key Issues In Gov. DeSantis' State Of The State Address

Frank Torres (l) and Dick Batchelor. Photo: Matthew Peddie, WMFE

Education and the environment were two of the key themes Governor Ron DeSantis focused on during his State of the State address, kicking off the 2020 legislative session. 

For more on how these issues affect Central Florida, Republican political analyst Frank Torres and Democratic political analyst Dick Batchelor spoke to 90.7’s Matthew Peddie.

Matthew Peddie: First of all, any surprises in either the substance of the governor's speech or the responses from the Democrats, Dick?

Dick Batchelor: I thought the governor's speech was good. Keep in mind this governor is at 72% in the polls, which is the highest any governor has been in 10 years and keep in mind too, look to do the optics of  DeSantis 2024. So you take on education and want to raise the salary to 47 five [$47,500], which would take it to number two in the country, which is great because we've woefully underfunded education, and it takes takes on the environment again, a very pro environment agenda in his State of the State speech, today, so I think you're looking at a guy who's really popular, who's picking the right issues that appeal to both sides and running with them. I think he's, I think he did the right thing and has the right message and and certainly ... you cannot argue against the pay raise for teachers.

MP: What do you think, Frank?

Frank Torres: I thought was a very safe speech. You know, I've been around Ron DeSantis since 2012, since his first election to Congress and he's a common sense, stick to the basics guy. And if like Dick said, that with the poll numbers working in his direction, there's no reason to take any chances really on on any edgy issues. So we start to allow the the bipartisan initiatives, a lot of the things that make people on both sides of the aisle happy and I think it worked for him today.

MP: So let's focus a little bit on education, often one of the most hotly contested issues of the session. Let's take a listen to the governor's comments about teacher pay and other things.

Gov. DeSantis: 
Now our approach to k - 12 education rests on 3 main components: number one, recruiting and retaining great teachers in the classroom. Two: promoting educational choice so that our parents, particularly low income parents, can place their child in a good school. And three, measuring results through accountability. Now I’m recommending that we take the bold step of setting a minimum salary for public school teachers at 47 thousand five hundred dollars. That will bring Florida from the bottom half of states to number two in the nation.
MP: Dick Batchelor, just back to that issue of pushing for a minimum teacher's salary, how much buy in do you think there is for that?

DB: Well, I think there's buy-in generally speaking, but keep in mind, though, you've got the Speaker of the House, [Rep. José] Oliva, who basically says, well, let's not go there yet. It's a $900 million price tag on this. So I think there's going to be some debate regarding that. And the other thing is, what about the teachers who currently make 47- five after working in the school system so long? Don't you want to also give them some opportunity for pay advancement? So I think there's going to be two critical things And the third thing he alluded to, which he didn't spend a lot of time on, but we know what he's talking about, is really the private charter schools and the tax credit scholarship for K through 12. So that's going to be a controversy too as far as the Democrats are concerned. But how do you pay for it, number one, number two, what do you do about the teachers who are already at 47-five after many years there.

MP: Frank, do you see what Governor DeSantis is pushing for actually becoming the law or do you think it will be modified substantially if it is, in fact, pushed through?

FT: Yes, to both questions. That's the truth. This is a starting point. And this is customary with with the State of the State, this is going to be a starting point. And the legislature is going to try to push, you know, the the parameters of these goals back and forth, and money is going to be an issue and that money is going to have to come from somewhere and where that money comes from affects various constituencies, various special interests, and it's going to be a big, big, legislative battle over where this money goes, to see if the governor can really hit this mark. This is the beginning of the conversation.

MP: Let's turn from education to the environment and the governor touted his commitment to restoring the Everglades and cleaning out Florida's waterways. Let's just take a listen to part of that speech there.

Gov. DeSantis: 
Because I believe that stewardship of our natural resources is key to our economic well being. Our water's the foundation of our tourism industry, makes Florida the top fishing and boating destination in the world and enhances our property values.
MP: Frank Torres, we all know the problems that Florida has had with toxic algae in the past. Are those problems in the rearview mirror? Do you think is it going to take more money to sort of fix these problems once and for all?

FT: You have to ask the algae! These things just seem to pop up and a lot of that has to do with the conditions of the water in the state and if we can stay proactive, we can do what we can to keep this toxic algae away and to keep our wildlife alive. And this is really discipline. It's kind of like staying on a diet, for lawmakers in Tallahassee, or at least a financial diet anyways, if you stick to it, the environment's going to take care of itself and you know, and everything will work out. But if you stray away from it, if you start pulling, you know, a few million here in a few million there, then you're going to start to notice things going downhill very quickly.

DB: Keep in mind, the governor's also proposing water quality standards, number one, and number two on the Florida Forever, I think he's proposing like $620 million a year for three years. So some real, some real money in there. And again, he's got some, he's doing it for the right reasons, but politically, it just complements the agenda across the board and makes it very bipartisan.

MP: Well, let's turn now to the Democratic response. We had Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson and House Democratic Leader Khionne McGee giving the democratic response to the governor's speech McGee talked about bringing the state "back into the sunshine."

Rep. Kionne MgGee:
You were promised a version of the American dream but you were given a nightmare due to our affordable housing crisis, after our officials raided one point five billion dollars out of the affordable housing trust. Yes you were promised a clean environment but there has been a systematic and intentional underfunding of environmental protections. And yes, you were promised safer communities but criminals and violence are plaguing our communities instead.
MP: Dick Batchelor, this is kind of a bleak vision of the state. Is there some truth in that, though?

DB: Well, I was very disappointed in the Democratic response, number one, because they tried to attack him on things that were, that are popular: on the environment, on education, so he's responded to those things, but why not draw some distinctions? For instance, [Gov. DeSantis] talked about parental consent, that's abortion by the way, parental consent. He talked about that, Democrats didn't come back on that. There was no school safety program, Democrats didn't come back on gun control or anything like that. There was a very distinct difference between the governor and the Democrats. But I thought they were very weak in the response going after his weak points would have been preferable. But he's going after his strong points. In fact, one, the senate response was, "we've done nothing about Medicare." Well, of course we haven't because it's a federal program. Of course on the other hand, the governor said "there will never be a state income tax". Of course it's prohibited by the Constitution. So everybody's a little bit coy on it, but I thought the Democrats would have been a bit better to talk about more money for education, maybe stronger on the environment. Go after some of these differences like the choice issue, private schools, voucher programs, things like that, where there is a distinct difference.

MP: Affordable housing, though, Frank Torres, I mean there is an issue statewide, but especially here in Central Florida. Has this administration done enough to help solve that problem in Central Florida or elsewhere?

FT: Real fast, though, how about the intensity in that delivery, in that response? My goodness, I didn't believe all that he was saying but he sure had my attention! Getting to your question, as far as affordable housing, I can't say that any of these lawmakers on either side of the aisle, from all over the state, have given me any reason to believe that they'll deliver on this until it's actually done. And as for, you know, your local Orlando lawmakers and the Democratic response? We have a lot of Democrats here in Orlando, they're in the minority party. They're gonna have to hold a lot of press conferences and protest to really make some noise up there, because none of their laws are going to get passed.

DB: Can I interject one quick thing, and it's interesting, again, go back, the governor did the right thing on affordable housing. For the last [session], as he's been governor-

MP: He hasn't raided the Sadowski fund.

DB: He proposed the Sadowski fund be fully funded, and got maybe $350 million last year, which is more than previous years. So again, he's choosing the right issues. And the Democrats have a way to go at it. But they're basically attacking him on his own his strong points, which doesn't make any sense to me because he said, "Do not raid the Sadowski fund, affordable housing, keep it where it is and shift it to the Republican leadership."

FT: And, Matt and Dick, that is the big bet for this legislative session. Will they be disciplined enough? Will they be strong enough to stay away from those things? Are they going to leave us all hanging again? I mean, like I said before, there's not much reason to believe in these guys.

MP: Well, Frank Torres, Republican political analyst- you can find his writing over at orlandoopinion.com-thank you so much, Frank.

FT: Thank you

MP:  And dig Batchelor, former state lawmaker and founder of the Dick Batchelor management group and Democratic analyst,  Dick, thanks as well.

DB: Thank you.