Florida lawmakers gave DeSantis total power over pandemic aid. Now they want it back.

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TALLAHASSEE — Republican lawmakers in Florida are starting to look for ways to rein in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ emergency powers nearly a year into the public health crisis that has crippled the state and killed more than 28,000 residents.

As Florida’s tourism-centered economy crumbled and the rate of new Covid-19 infections climbed last summer, the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature let DeSantis, a fellow Republican, call the shots. Like legislators in other states, they deferred to their governor on the pandemic for months, on everything from whether to shut down bars to which schools should hold in-person classes.

But then lawmakers gave DeSantis keys to the store: The governor got complete authority over how to spend nearly $5 billion in federal aid sent to the state from Congress — handing over control of the purse strings central to legislative power. It was a move that also let the Legislature take a hands-off approach to issues about surging unemployment, Black Lives Matter protests, and Covid-19.

Now, as legislative leaders assess Florida’s coronavirus response and how long the crisis has raged, a small number of Republicans are starting to weigh the possibility of new limits on DeSantis’ executive powers — something Democrats have been clamoring for. Fear of more severe lockdowns in the future has rattled some GOP lawmakers.

“What would have happened if Andrew Gillum had won?” state Sen. Jeffrey Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, said in an interview, referring to DeSantis’ 2018 Democratic opponent for governor. “Would we be like California? Would we be like New York?”

Florida law gives the governor greater executive leeway during a declared emergency — power intended to help the state respond to its regular influx of hurricanes. DeSantis first declared a pandemic-related emergency in March 2020, but he has extended it several times since then. He used that power to order the quarantine of out-of-state visitors, spend money without legislative approval and ignore constitutional deadlines for judicial appointments.

But after a year battling the coronavirus, a reckoning over emergency powers has started to bubble up in other state capitals across the nation. It is still somewhat surprising to see the debate starting to emerge in Tallahassee, given the effusive praise Republicans have heaped on DeSantis in the past year. It’s not yet clear what lawmakers may do to alter the governor’s emergency powers, but Brandes — who sits on the Senate’s select committee looking at the pandemic — and others suggested that the governor should not have unilateral authority to impose business lockdowns.

“I think a part of our role is absolutely to look at what the Legislature’s role is in a sustained emergency,” said state Sen. Danny Burgess (R-Thonotosassa), who chairs the select Senate committee. “We have never been in a situation where it’s been this prolonged and ongoing.”

House Speaker Chris Sprowls praised DeSantis’ response to the pandemic, going so far as to say the state was "blessed to have Gov. DeSantis" in office because he didn’t do intensive lockdowns.

But the Palm Harbor Republican said he wasn’t ruling out looking at how emergency powers were exercised.

"I think we are looking at everything connected to the pandemic,” Sprowls said in an interview Monday. “We’re looking at all kinds of things that happened prior, happened during and are to come in future pandemics and future emergencies. I think all of those things are part of the conversation as to how does that work.”

The governor’s office in Florida was once considered among the weakest in the nation, hemmed in by a system imposed after the Civil War that divided its power among other elected officials. But the office has changed in the last two decades due to voter-approved referendums and governors who have chosen to use their emergency power creatively. Former Gov. Charlie Crist, for example, used his emergency power to extend early voting hours in 2008, a move that some Republicans thought helped President Barack Obama, a Democrat, win the state.

DeSantis’ office so far has not weighed in on whether the governor would go along with changes to his emergency authority. Meredith Beatrice, a spokesperson for DeSantis, declined to comment.

At the start of the pandemic, DeSantis ordered the temporary shutdown of restaurants and bars. But then last fall, he used his authority to block local governments from imposing fines on people who ignored local mask mandates. Florida’s education commissioner, citing the governor’s emergency power, also issued an order that required school districts to offer in-person instruction to those parents that wanted it.

Brandes said that one possible alternative is to require that certain orders must have the approval of the governor and the three other members of Florida’s Cabinet, who are also elected officials.

Burgess, added, however, that legislators may not just restrict the governor’s powers, but may also instead make permanent some of the actions taken during the pandemic, such as loosening the rules on who can administer vaccines.

State Rep. Evan Jenne, a Dania Beach Democrat who sits on the House panel reviewing the pandemic, was skeptical that GOP legislators would actually curb some of DeSantis’ power.

“It kind of catches me off guard,” Jenne said. “I think the governor did everything they wanted him to do. … I’ll be surprised if they really choose to go after his executive power.”

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