Florida Guard looks like DeSantis’ own militia —with no Legislature to keep him in check | Opinion

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After pulling the plug on his struggling presidential campaign, Gov. Ron DeSantis is again flexing his muscles in his home state with an announcement that he would send the Florida State Guard — custom created for him — to the Texas border.

The U.S. southern border crisis — and inaction by Congress and the White House to address the record numbers of people crossing it — have given DeSantis the perfect excuse to concentrate more power in his own hands via what looks more and more like his own taxpayer-funded militia.

The Legislature already revived the Florida State Guard and then expanded it at his request. Now lawmakers are working to give him even more power to deploy the unit while making it harder to hold its members accountable for on-duty acts.

DeSantis said Thursday State Guard members would be deployed to Texas alongside members of the Florida National Guard and Florida Highway Patrol troopers. Texas and the federal government are at a standoff over the state’s efforts to block migrants from crossing the border by setting up a concertina-wire barrier. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Biden administration could take down the barriers but Texas has vowed to continue erecting them — now with the help of Florida.

“The goal is to help Texas fortify this border, help them strengthen the barricades, help them add barriers, help them add the wire that they need so that we can stop this invasion once and for all,” DeSantis said at a press conference in Jacksonville.

In 2022, DeSantis pushed the Legislature to revive the State Guard, which had been inactive since 1947. The civilian volunteer force was originally planned as a non-military mission meant to provide relief after disasters like hurricanes but it has quickly evolved. Lawmakers expanded from 400 to 1,500 members and allowed DeSantis to deploy them out of state, while also allocating $100 million for planes and boats.

Following a surge of migrants arriving by boat in the Keys last year, a special unit took part in combat training in the Panhandle where trainees learned to use rifles, practice “aerial gunnery” and treat “massive hemorrhages.” Some military veterans who volunteered to be part of the State Guard quit over its militia-style training.

This is a far cry from handing out water bottles and hurricane relief supplies and closer to something resembling DeSantisown militia. That’s a realistic danger considering his authoritarian tendencies and how his rhetoric on immigration has grown more extreme with calls to shoot suspected drug smugglers “stone cold dead” at the Southern Border.

By granting DeSantis so much authority, the Legislature doesn’t seem to be considering what a future governor could do with the same powers.

And yet the Republican-led Legislature is now advancing a bill that would give the governor — whether that’s DeSantis or someone else — even more flexibility to activate the Guard. Under House Bill 1551, the governor could use the force during ”a declared state of emergency, period of civil unrest, or any other time deemed necessary and appropriate.” The legislation also would make it harder for people to sue members of the Guard for actions they committed while on duty by making plaintiffs pay for everyone’s attorney fees if they don’t prevail. Guard members would also be entitled to an attorney paid for by the taxpayers in criminal or civil court.

“Any other time deemed necessary” appears to be in the eye of the beholder. Let’s go back to the summer of 2020, when DeSantis proposed an “anti-riot” law following Black Lives Matter protests — despite the fact that, unlike in other parts of the country, the Florida protests were largely peaceful. What could the governor have done with a military-style State Guard that answers to him only?

DeSantis has used fear — of BLM protesters, “woke” culture and, now, an out-of-control Southern border — to justify spending millions of taxpayer dollars to make him more powerful. The Florida Legislature, so far, has shown no desire to keep him in check.

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