Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried teed off Monday on a wide range of economic, health and election issues that she says the state Cabinet and lawmakers should have addressed throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
On the eve of a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, Fried said Gov. Ron DeSantis shouldn’t have been allowed to solely address issues such as an overwhelmed unemployment system, problems in health-care reporting, election security and how federal CARES Act stimulus dollars will be spent by the state.
“I didn’t want to have to do this today,” Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, said at the end of the one-hour online session.
“When the body in which we serve, the Florida Cabinet, that you elect, doesn’t provide information and leaves state businesses pending for months, while canceling meeting after meeting, I have to step up and lead,” said Fried, who is widely mentioned as a potential challenger to DeSantis in the 2022 election. “This isn’t hypothetical. People are asking how their government is addressing COVID-19. How we plan to help feed hungry families. How we will be dealing with a budget deficit. And how we will conduct safe elections while ensuring the sacred right to vote. It is our job as constitutional officers to give the people answers. And if the Cabinet can’t, and the governor won’t, then I will.”
Representatives of DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.
Fried was joined in the event by several policy officials and state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat who has been pushing for DeSantis and Republican legislative leaders to call lawmakers back to Tallahassee to address a state revenue shortfall created by the pandemic.
“It’s impossible to explain to constituents why it is the Legislature, the Senate president and House speaker, have decided that since we left Tallahassee in mid-March, their message to the people of Florida is that there’s nothing for the Legislature to do,” Rodriguez said. “They’re happy to let Gov. DeSantis make all the decisions at the margins of what’s constitutional for the state.”
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Florida Policy Institute Chief Executive Officer Sadaf Knight warned that covering a projected state budget shortfall is contingent on Congress lifting restrictions on the use of CARES Act dollars. State economists last month estimated Florida will bring in $3.4 billion less in tax revenues this year than had been projected earlier and $2 billion less than projected next fiscal year.
Republican leaders have maintained that increased budget reserves approved during this year’s legislative session, along with $1 billion in cash-conserving vetoes by DeSantis, will prevent the need for a special legislative session.
DeSantis, Fried, Moody and Patronis on Tuesday will hold their first in-person Cabinet meeting since February.
The four statewide elected officials held a conference call in May. At the time, Fried asserted Cabinet members were “left in the dark” regarding the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Patronis replied by comparing the state’s response to the pandemic to the actions of New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and highlighted a task force created by DeSantis to help reopen the economy.
“We will persevere, but we will be stronger and at the same time making sure that we’re looking out for the state’s finances and our taxpayer dollars,” Patronis said.