Media coverage of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s all-but-announced candidacy for president is already in full frenzy, and so far the script is exactly as his handlers would like it to be. The governor regularly opens up new fronts in the culture wars, sowing alarm over critical race theory, transgender rights, or border policies. In response, liberal pundits fall into the trap of accentuating the very issues DeSantis has chosen to fire up his base.
Omitted from the public debate about DeSantis’s policies is almost any discussion of his actual record of governance—what exactly he has delivered to the citizens of his state, especially those without seven-figure incomes and lush investment portfolios.
Even a cursory dip into the statistics of social and economic well-being reveals that Florida falls short in almost any measure that matters to the lives of its citizens. More than four years into the DeSantis governorship, Florida continues to languish toward the bottom of state rankings assessing the quality of health care, school funding, long-term elder care, and other areas key to a successful society.
Florida may be the place where “woke goes to die”—as DeSantis is fond of saying—but it is also where teachers’ salaries are among the lowest in the nation, unemployment benefits are stingier than in any other state, and wage theft flourishes with little interference from the DeSantis administration. In 2021, DeSantis campaigned against a successful ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage, which had been stuck at $8.65 an hour. Under DeSantis’s watch, the Sunshine State has not exactly been a workers’ paradise.
DeSantis weaponizes the cultural wars to distract attention from the core missions of his governorship, which is to starve programs geared toward bettering the lives of ordinary citizens so he can maintain low taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Florida is the ideal haven for privileged Americans who don’t want to pay their fair share of taxes. It has no income tax for individuals, and its corporate tax rate of 5.5% is among the lowest in the nation. An investigation by the Orlando Sentinel in late 2019 revealed the startling fact that 99% of Florida’s companies paid no corporate income tax, abetted by tax-avoidance schemes and state officials who gave a low priority to enforcing tax laws.
This is a pattern that shows up in the statistics of many Republican-led states, which on average commit fewer dollars per-capita to health care, public education, and other crucial services compared to their blue counterparts, while making sure corporations and wealthy individuals are prioritized for tax relief. Arizona cut taxes every year between 1990 and 2019, following up with a shift to a flat tax this year that will cost its budget $1.9 billion. Meanwhile, its public-school spending ranks 48 among the 50 states.
In Florida, the state’s tax revenues come largely through sales and excise taxes, which fall hardest on the poor and middle class. A 2018 study by the left-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that Florida had the third least-equitable tax system of the 50 states. In the state’s “upside-down” tax structure, the poorest 20% of Florida families paid 12.7% of their income in taxes, while the families whose income was in the top 4% paid 4.5%, and the top 1% paid 2.3%, according to the study.
Florida taxpayers get less for their money than residents of many other states. The Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that studies health-care systems globally, found in its 2022 “scorecard” that Florida had the 16th worst health care among the 50 states. It’s no wonder that Florida ranks below the northern blue states in life expectancy and rates of cancer death, diabetes, fatal overdoses, teen birth rates, and infant mortality.
Largely because of DeSantis’s obstinacy, Florida is one of 10 states that have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, an act of political spite that has cost those states billions in federal health care dollars and cost thousands of people their lives. More than 12% of Floridians are without medical insurance, a worse record than all but four other states. Despite having the country’s highest percentage of retirees, Florida has the worst long-term care among the 50 states, according to the American Association of Retired Persons.
Public schools fare no better than health care in DeSantis’s Florida. Not only did Florida rank 49th in the country for average teacher pay in 2020, but the Education Law Center, a non-profit advocacy group based in New Jersey, found in a 2021 report that the state had the seventh-lowest per-pupil funding in the country. Education Week, which ranks states public school annually, looking beyond mere test scores, placed Florida 23rd in its 2021 report, a lackluster showing for a large and wealthy state.
It says something about the state of our political discourse that Florida’s denuded public sector was not more of an issue in last year’s gubernatorial campaign. In endorsing DeSantis’s Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, the Tampa Bay Times spent so many column inches on the incumbent’s demagoguery, vindictiveness, and authoritarian tendencies that it never even got to the minutiae of his governance. “No matter what you think about the state of the Florida economy or its schools or its future…,” the paper wrote, “the choice really is this simple: Do you want the state governed by a decent man or a bully?”
To be fair to the media, DeSantis and his allies manned the trenches of the culture wars so ferociously that it was all reporters could do to keep up with all the bomb throwing. How do you delve into the state’s tax policy when your governor is flying planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard or declaring war on Disney for issuing a statement in opposition to the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay Law”?
But that is very much the point of wedge issues, as they have been wielded by scurrilous politicians for decades, to anger and distract voters so they won’t notice the actions of public officials that mainly benefit the wealthy and are against the public interest.
As the 2024 election draws closer, DeSantis must not be allowed to accomplish nationally what he did in his state—cloak his service to the wealthy by frightening working people with stories about transgender recruiting and “socialist” college professors. There are unmistakable signs that Americans are focused on what an activist government can do for the public good, as evidenced by Floridians’ vote to increase the minimum wage.
The failure of DeSantis to better serve the most vulnerable citizens of his state is his weak underbelly in a national campaign.
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