Florida, the new nanny state

By Renee Loth, Boston Globe, June 3, 2024

For a guy who crusades against nanny-state overreach, Governor Ron DeSantis is doing an awful lot of finger-wagging lately about other people’s lives.

I recently returned to Massachusetts from a trip to Florida, where the local papers reported that Governor Ron DeSantis had issued a statewide directive banning rainbow-colored lights on the state’s bridges, just in time for Pride Month. As part of the governor’s “freedom summer’’ declaration, enforced by the state’s department of transportation, the only colors allowed to illuminate bridges between now and Labor Day will be red, white, and blue. As Florida’s own absurdist sage Dave Barry often puts it: I am not making this up.

DeSantis likes to tout Florida as “the freedom state,’’ unfettered by the shackles of intrusive government. “Florida has become the escape hatch for those chafing under authoritarian, arbitrary, and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions,’’ he thundered in his 2022 State of the State address. But for a guy who crusades against nanny-state overreach, DeSantis is doing an awful lot of finger-wagging lately about other people’s lives.

He signed legislation banning the sale of lab-grown meat in Florida, the better to “protect the integrity of American agriculture.’’ He directed that the words “climate change’’ be stricken from state laws overseeing the environment. He banned local regulations that would protect workers from heat exposure if they exceed OSHA standards, forcing Miami-Dade County to drop a local ordinance allowing workers 10 minutes of paid rest and a sip of water every two hours when the heat index is above 90 degrees. He banned wind farms in state-controlled waters. And he signed a law prohibiting minors under age 14 from opening social media accounts, even with the permission of their parents.

And that’s just this year.

Aided by a willing Legislature with Republican supermajorities, DeSantis has wielded the power of his office with relish, bending state institutions to his will. Last year his budget defunded all diversity and inclusion offices at the state’s public colleges and universities. He has remade the artsy, progressive New College of Florida in Sarasota in his own image, appointing six new ideologically aligned trustees, who promptly fired the college president and installed a DeSantis ally. The school declared itself “a haven for Harvard refugees’’ and offered free tuition to any transfer student who finds the Ivy League school too liberal.

And don’t get me started on abortion, gender discussions, voting rights, or book bans. When it comes to personal liberty and expression, DeSantis knows best.

To be fair (or at least balanced), DeSantis is not the only “small government’’ proponent abandoning his laissez-faire principles to please the ultraright. Nationwide, Republican-led states are bullying their way through the lives of their constituents, blithely adopting restrictions not just on personal behavior but also on local governments and industry, two supposed pillars of the conservative creed.

After decades of saying government mustn’t interfere with drilling or fracking because we desperately need energy production, for example, red states are now blocking solar and wind energy development and slow-walking charging stations for electric vehicles. Many governors have banned state contracts or investments in companies that adhere to so-called environmental, social, and governance principles. Not to be outdone, DeSantis last year signed the most far-reaching ban of any state.

Fired-up governors are even going after their own cities and towns, preempting laws adopted in local communities if they seem too liberal. South Dakota, Tennessee, Arizona, and other states prohibit their municipalities from banning plastic bags. Oklahoma outlawed local ordinances that ban fracking in the state: an anti-ban ban. DeSantis recently signed legislation barring cities and towns from offering workers a living wage if it exceeds the state’s minimum wage.

Of course, there are still plenty of things you can do in Florida. You can carry a concealed firearm without a permit, background check, or safety training. You can impose the death penalty on a defendant without a unanimous jury verdict. If you’re a doctor or insurance company, you can deny a patient health care — contraception, say, or vaccinations — based on vague “moral, ethical, or religious’’ beliefs. DeSantis said the new law “positioned Florida as the national leader for medical freedom.’’

It’s an irony that seems lost on DeSantis and the others, but wielding state power to impose a particular ideology on the citizenry is the very authoritarianism these lip-servers of liberty claim to be fighting against. It’s a strange idea of freedom. Maybe that’s because it’s really not about freedom at all.

Image Credits: AI-Generated Image by Schneestarre – Adobe