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DeSantis to act quickly on toxic algae, cautiously on felon voting rights
Palm Beach Post - 12/14/2018
Dec. 14--TALLAHASSEE -- Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis plans to move quickly on toxic algae and water-quality issues, filling three Florida Supreme Court vacancies and deciding whether Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel should keep his job.
But DeSantis, in an exclusive interview with The Palm Beach Post, says he favors waiting months for legislators to pass "implementing language" before the state enacts a voter-approved measure to restore voting rights to most felons who have completed their sentences.
DeSantis, who takes office Jan. 8, spoke with The Palm Beach Post on Wednesday afternoon in his bare-walled transition office on the 16th floor of the Florida Capitol. He discussed his priorities, the influence of President Donald Trump in the recent election and the "pathway to be able to work constructively with the federal government" that Republican DeSantis hopes his relationship with Trump will provide in the president's adopted home state.
Amendment 4, which restores voting rights to felons who have completed sentences for crimes other than murder or sexual offenses, was approved by 64.6 percent of voters on Nov. 6. Supporters say the ballot language is clear and felons who have served their time should be able to register to vote in January.
"I don't think that it's self-executing. I mean, I think that if you look they have exceptions for who's not eligible for that. They do not enumerate the statutes that you could violate. And so there just needs to be implementing language. I don't see any way around that -- regardless of whether you want it all to be implemented tomorrow or whether you're trying to kind of frustrate it. But bottom line is, there's going to be a law that we're going to have to pass in order to comply with that amendment," said DeSantis.
DeSantis opposed Amendment 4, but said he and the Legislature are obligated to implement it. Asked how quickly lawmakers can act, DeSantis pointed to the 60-day legislative session, which begins March 5.
"They're going to be able to do it in March ... There's no way you can go through this session without implementing it," the incoming governor said.
Republicans have held the governor's office for the last 20 years in Florida. DeSantis, asked how he might be different from previous GOP governors, mentioned the Supreme Court and water issues.
Three Democrat-appointed justices will retire Jan. 8, giving DeSantis an opportunity to put a conservative stamp on the seven-member court.
"I will have as many court picks on the first day (as) Rick Scott and Jeb Bush in 16 years had combined ... Jeb had two, Rick had one. So I think the courts will be an important part of that. And then, I think just where we are with some of the issues I talked about in the campaign like water quality and some of these projects," DeSantis said.
"I think the public wants to see more action there. I've pledged to do more action. But then also, I have the pathway to be able to work constructively with the federal government to hopefully bring some of the infrastructure, water infrastructure projects to fruition or at least get them to where we know this is going to work," DeSantis said.
"Democrats have not been successful with this either, because we had Democrat governors forever," DeSantis added. "But I think that could be something that could really set me apart from both the Democrat and Republican governors we've had over the last 40 years."
DeSantis wants to expedite construction of a 17,000-acre reservoir to store water south of Lake Okeechobee and relieve the need for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discharge water through the Caloosahatchee River to the west and the St. Lucie River to the east when the level of Lake Okeechobee gets too high. The discharges, laden with harmful nutrients from farm runoff, fertilizers and leaky septic tanks, cause toxic blue-green algae blooms in Southwest Florida and the Treasure Coast.
Before the reservoir is completed, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, the chairman of DeSantis' transition committee on environmental issues, contends that lowering the level of Lake Okeechobee during the winter dry season will alleviate the need for discharges in the wetter summer months.
Water managers say lowering the lake too much can lead to negative consequences, including reducing backup water supply for a drought, damaging treatment areas for cleaning water before it reaches the Everglades and saltwater intrusion. The Army Corps sets the final rules on water levels.
"Obviously we have to deal with the Army Corps on this issue, but Brian feels strongly and I feel strongly that the way they analyze this, that those rules can be updated. And I think if you were to do that effectively you could probably go without having any discharges. And so that's my goal, is to have no discharges," said DeSantis, who said he planned to raise the issue with Trump when he and other incoming governors met with the president in Washington on Thursday.
"I want to accelerate the reservoir -- I want to get all these projects moving faster because they take too long and I think people are frustrated with that. But in the mean time, I don't want to say we have to wait years to get progress. I want to make as much progress as we can right off the bat."
DeSantis said he's also open to tighter regulations on pollution levels in farm runoff.
"I want to reduce pollution going into Lake Okeechobee and I want to look at ways to do that. I talked in the campaign about having a more consistent regulatory framework. I don't want big government, but I want effective -- whatever regulation, make it be effective. So we're going to look at ways that we can reduce pollution going into the lake," DeSantis said.
Water issues were one of several topics DeSantis addressed in his interview with The Palm Beach Post. Some others:
--Trump: The president visited Florida twice in the week before the Nov. 6 election to campaign for DeSantis, who won the governorship by 0.4 percent over Democrat Andrew Gillum, and Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who edged Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson by 0.12 percent. Asked about Trump's impact, DeSantis said: "There was a lot of interest in the election and I think he was responsible for driving some of that, both for me and against me. I mean, that's just kind of the way these things are ... There were so many different factors in a big state with 8-plus million votes, you can look back at anything and say it was important."
--Supreme Court: DeSantis said he's been studying the writings of 11 candidates forwarded to him by the state's Judicial Nominating Commission. Transition staff will interview all 11 nominees and DeSantis said he'll follow up with interviews himself in the coming weeks. He said he could announce at least one pick before he takes office and the others soon afterward.
The court's only black justice, Peggy Quince, is one of the retirees. There are no black nominees among the 11 names sent to DeSantis by the JNC for consideration.
"I was not involved with the list so you'll have to talk to the JNC about how that happened. I don't know who applied or who didn't apply. I can tell you this, I would love to be able to appoint justices from a variety of backgrounds," DeSantis said. In the future, he said, "I will instruct different people in the conservative legal community here that we want to see folks from diverse backgrounds."
--Broward Sheriff: As a candidate, DeSantis said he would have removed Broward Sheriff Israel, saying his agency didn't properly respond to warning signs from gunman Nikolas Cruz before the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland. DeSantis on Wednesday said he'll make a decision on Israel in early January.
"What we want to see is the reports from these investigations that have been done about the Parkland incident and about whatever failings happened. I've actually been briefed confidentially on some of the facts. There's going to be more facts I need to get but I'm anticipating taking that, reviewing it and then if there's corrective action that needs to be taken then we can take corrective action," DeSantis said.
--Recount fallout: DeSantis said Gov. Rick Scott did not consult him before suspending another controversial Broward County official, Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes, and replacing her with Peter Antonacci. Snipes had already announced she planned to resign in January, then said she wanted to rescind her resignation after Scott suspended her.
"I think she did the right thing by resigning -- I was not going to let her preside over another election," said DeSantis, who said he did not have an opinion on Scott's action.
--Introducing himself: Despite winning a nationally watched campaign, the 40-year-old DeSantis said he's not well-known. "Now people are going to get to know me more for me. I mean, it was a two-month campaign. A lot of people, they didn't necessarily know either of us that well. So, it was a very nationalized governor's race and I think that now we have the opportunity to really do a lot of stuff, be very active, people see that and then you're kind of building your own record going forward."
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