TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet met Tuesday, wrapping up a year of infrequent gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If DeSantis gets his way, it would have even less to do.
For the second year in a row, DeSantis is pushing for a bill to eliminate Cabinet oversight over a slew of agency and state personnel rules and transfer many of those powers to himself or agencies he controls, arguing that America’s Founding Fathers envisioned 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 bill, HB 1537, reads in its opening section.
The reference to an “energetic executive” as the “leading character in the definition of good government” was used by DeSantis in his inauguration speech in 2019, citing an Alexander Hamilton quote.
“The legislation would create a more efficient and effective government, which has always been central to the governor’s mission,” DeSantis spokesman Cody McCloud said. “The governor and his staff will continue to work with the House and Senate as the bill moves through the legislative process.”
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat on the Cabinet, blasted the bill as an attempt to marginalize her office.
“For the second year running, the governor is attempting a harmful power grab,” Fried said in an emailed statement. “This bill creates an unnecessary imbalance of power, silences the voice of any non-majority party Cabinet member, and blocks the consensus that Florida’s Constitution requires and makes possible fairness and transparency in doing the people’s business.”
The bill would remove Cabinet oversight of many issues connected to Fried’s office, such as its ability to review water management district rules and consumptive use permits issued by the Department of Environmental Protection. Also, the state’s hemp plan from Fried’s office would require DeSantis’ approval instead of the Cabinet’s.
Fried has heavily criticized DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic, including his decision not to hold in-person Cabinet meetings from the onset of the pandemic last March until September. One meeting held via conference call was held in that time. Cabinet meetings are typically held monthly.
DEP and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles would be placed solely under the purview of the governor, who would be able to appoint the leaders of those agencies without Cabinet approval. The Department of Veterans Affairs would retain Cabinet oversight but its leader would require the governor’s approval to take the job, not three votes on the Cabinet.
Moreover, the Cabinet’s oversight of administrative rules and regulations passed by some agencies under its jurisdiction would be eliminated, disputes over local development districts, land planning for regional developments and the power to determine of areas of the state deemed critical to maintaining the environment would fall to agencies solely under the governor.
The leader of the Division of Administrative Hearings, a quasi-judicial body that resolves disputes with government agencies over bid contracts and other issues, would be solely appointed by the governor as well.
Pete Antonacci was appointed to that role by the Cabinet in December, replacing John MacIver, who stepped down last year after failing to be confirmed by the Senate. MacIver’s appointment was controversial, as Fried objected to his lack of experience.
The two other Republican Cabinet members, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, were noncommittal about the legislation.
“We are reviewing the bill and will address any concerns through the legislative process this session,” Moody spokeswoman Lauren Cassedy said.
“The CFO’s office is currently reviewing this proposed legislation and will be monitoring it closely,” Patronis spokesman Devin Galetta stated.
The Florida Cabinet used to have seven members, including an elected Secretary of State and Education commissioner but was pared down to three members by voters in the 1998 election.