DeSantis seeks a lot more for fledgling State Guard: Planes, boats, police powers

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When Gov. Ron DeSantis first proposed reviving the long-dormant Florida State Guard, he wanted 200 volunteers and a modest $5 million budget.

Then it grew to 400 members and $10 million.

Now it’s 1,500 members and a nearly $100 million budget — with police powers, helicopters, boats and, under one lawmaker’s request, cellphone-hacking technology.

The proposed budget for the Florida State Guard, released by a House committee Tuesday, offers the most detailed realization of DeSantis’ vision for the State Guard, a WWII-era force brought back last year to supplement the state’s overworked Florida National Guard.

DeSantis told lawmakers he wanted $98 million for the program but didn’t offer many details. Republican leaders in the House proposed more than $89 million in their budget, including six boats and tow vehicles, $49.5 million for planes and helicopters, $22.7 million to store those vehicles and $10 million for a new headquarters.

They also want another $750,000 to contract with the Israeli company Cellebrite to create a “Digital Forensic Center of Excellence” that would help the State Guard target human trafficking and drug and child exploitation crimes, including on farms. Cellebrite is often hired by police departments because of its ability to break into iPhones.

None of the funding has been included so far in the Florida Senate’s proposed budget. Nor have senators filed DeSantis’ bill expanding the size and scope of the State Guard. Both could be part of bargaining between the chambers as they work to craft an identical budget for the state during the 60-day legislative session, which is scheduled to end in May.

The House bill, HB 1285, modeled on DeSantis’ proposed legislation, would create a specialized law enforcement unit within the State Guard, with the ability to bear arms and make arrests. Its scope would also be expanded, from only being activated during emergencies to being activated to “protect and defend the people of Florida from threats to public safety.”

Many states have state guards

Nearly half the states have similar volunteer units, which typically assist the national guard in responding to emergencies and natural disasters. Only the governor can activate these state units and the volunteer members can usually quit anytime.

Few, if any, state guards appear to have the powers that Florida is considering. The Texas State Guard, for example, has been deployed to address the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, but it does not have a law enforcement unit and its members do not carry weapons and can’t make arrests, according to a spokesperson. Nor does it have helicopters, airplanes or cellphone-hacking technology. (It does have small watercraft.)

Some legislators on both sides of the aisle have balked at the governor’s proposal.

“It was a lot — $100 million — and they have 400 members,” said Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Palm Harbor, the head of the Senate committee that sets the budget for the Department of Military Affairs. “I’m not sure they’re ready, in this budget, to spend that kind of money.”

The State Guard currently has fewer members than that.

State law allows the force to have up to 400 volunteers, but it is yet to be up and running. It is still “gearing up and training,” a DeSantis spokesperson said in January. In February, the office told the Times/Herald in response to a public records request for its training materials that it had no such records.

In October, its first director died suddenly. DeSantis announced his replacement in January. It’s Luis Soler, a captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

READ MORE: DeSantis elevates second in command to lead new Florida State Guard

Lots of former law enforcement officers among applicants

The State Guard has 3,500 credible applicants, including a “massive” number of current and former federal and local law enforcement officers, Rep. Mike Giallombardo, R-Cape Coral, told lawmakers earlier this month.

“They haven’t been able to give the official offer to a lot of them because they’re still trying to create that leadership,” said Giallombardo, who is sponsoring HB 1285.

When DeSantis first proposed reviving the force, it was as a 200-member volunteer unit to help the state’s 12,000 National Guard members respond to emergencies. The Florida National Guard is ranked 53rd out of 54 states and territories in the ratio of Guard personnel to state population because federal officials have not expanded its ranks.

In his statements to lawmakers, Giallombardo described a different vision for the State Guard.

Instead of only operating within Florida, as DeSantis first proposed, the State Guard could be dispatched to other states through agreements.

Under the House proposal, the State Guard would also be used to augment various state agencies, similar to how National Guard members have been dispatched to state prisons to cover shortages of corrections officers.

Every state agency has been asked to identify “critical needs” and gaps that State Guard members could fill, Giallombardo said.

Democratic critic calls funding increase ‘unnecessary’

Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, called the proposal for more State Guard members and more money “unnecessary.”

“It’s really gross, it does not make anyone more safe, and it’s just all about DeSantis silencing dissent and trying to out-Trump Trump,” said Eskamani, who voted against the bill.

The $750,000 for Cellebrite — half of what was requested by the company, records show — would be the state’s biggest agreement with the Israeli firm. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles have paid the company about $430,000 combined over the last decade, state records show.

DeSantis, who met with Cellebrite executives during a 2019 trip to Israel, does not take positions on lawmakers’ funding proposals, a spokesperson said.

Under the House funding request, filed by Rep. Tobin Overdorf, R-Palm City, Cellebrite would “provide forensic capabilities and training resources to the State Guard that will be used to support law enforcement in addressing the significant rise in human trafficking, child exploitation, and drug trafficking in the state.”

The partnership would “help accelerate criminal investigations” by targeting the “rapid influx of digital devices found in human trafficking, drug, and child exploitation crimes,” the request states.

The request form indicates it would also be used to protect Florida’s farming land from a “human trafficking problem,” which could potentially target migrant farm labor at a time when DeSantis is seeking to crack down on workers in the country illegally.

“This problem is challenging the department of agriculture and causing unforeseen issues for our farmers in affecting the safety of our citizens,” the request states.

Overdorf said the Cellebrite contract funding request did not come from the governor’s office and that it is not tied to DeSantis’ proposed expansion of the force.

“It is coming from some constituents,” Overdorf told a Herald/Times reporter on Thursday. When asked who they were, he said they worked in a “variety of areas” and that their concern was staying in compliance with “current regulations.”

The goal, he said, would be to create a statewide database to facilitate the tracking of people who might be engaged in human trafficking and other crimes. The company’s ability to access and process data would be an “incredible opportunity” for the state.

Tom Wunk, a vice president for Cellebrite who made the request, did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Who can join the State Guard?

Members of the State Guard are volunteers, meaning they’re not paid but do get stipends for travel and other expenses during their duty.

To be a member, a volunteer must be a citizen, must not have committed a felony and must not be an active duty service member. If they were a service member, they must have no less than a general discharge under honorable conditions.

Training needs to be “at least equivalent to the training requirements for members of the Florida National Guard.”

New York’s state guard does not have arresting powers, said Eric Durr, the director of public affairs for the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs.

Members of New York’s state guard are not armed, do not have their own planes, and mostly perform logistics work, such as driving forklifts. They also assist with migrants, Durr said, by helping at hotels where migrants are staying, passing out meals and doing other tasks.

“Basically their mission is to help fill in the holes when we don’t have enough national guardsmen,” Durr said.

California’s state guard is a volunteer force. In recent years, its members have responded to emergencies including wildfires, winter storms and the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid the pandemic, for example, they helped erect tents outside of hospitals and delivered food to those who were unable to leave their homes due to the risk of infection.