Streamlined Government Or A Power Grab? DeSantis Seeks Authority Over DEP, Highway Safety

Jan 24, 2020
Originally published on January 23, 2020 10:34 am

Governor Ron DeSantis is trying to strengthen his authority over two big state agencies. He wants the Legislature to give him exclusive control over two of the biggest bureaucracies that serve Florida motorists and are responsible for environmental protection -- and not everyone thinks it's a good idea. 

Governor Ron DeSantis wants to change state law so that the heads of two top state agencies report exclusively to him, not to him and the three elected Cabinet members.

The two officials are the Executive Director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. DEP manages Florida’s drinking and ground water, rivers, lakes and beaches. Highway Safety oversees driver licensing, vehicle registrations and the Florida Highway Patrol.

Under current law, the governor appoints both agency heads but the Cabinet must concur. A sponsor of the bill to change the law is Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach).

" (I was) getting a call from the governor’s office, about a problem about certain parts of government that report to multiple cabinet officers, that they’re not accountable to any one person. We think there’s a better structure, and that’s letting them report to one Cabinet officer, and why not the governor, who’s in charge of a lot of things and has a lot of responsibility?" said Bean.  

But Nikki Fried, the only Democrat on the Cabinet, calls the idea, "a shameless power grab that puts unfettered control in the hands of one individual instead of in the full Cabinet independently elected by Floridians." Fried said Bean’s bill – Senate Bill 1758 – would strip away checks and balances and would result in less accountability for Floridians.

DeSantis is seeking to consolidate his power in the second year of his term and at a time when his popularity with Floridians is very high, according to recent polls. For that reason, Bean said, the new line of authority will be popular with Republican senators and bring "clarity and efficiency in state government."

"He’s got some political capital and an excess of political capital. I love working with him and any time you get a chance to work with the governor, you’re excited about it as am I, so I’m looking forward to pitching the case."

The environment is a high priority for Floridians and the state faces many major challenges, from blue-green algae to Everglades restoration to sea level rise. Bean said giving the governor total authority over DEP should not be a concern, because the Legislature also keeps a close watch on the agency.

DeSantis has been in office for more than a year and he has not suggested a permanent director for highway safety. Terri Rhodes continues in the job as she did under former Governor Rick Scott, but she has not been re-appointed by the new administration.

Florida’s Cabinet is comprised of the attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner, and the power-sharing arrangement with the governor is unique among the 50 states. More than two decades ago, voters shrank the Cabinet from six to three members. If the governor wins and gets total control over the highway safety and environmental posts, it will strengthen his political hand and will be seen as a further weakening of the Cabinet’s power. 

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