(TALLAHASSEE/January 21, 2022) — A proposal that critics called a gubernatorial “power grab,” to wrest control of appointments from Cabinet members has started to move forward in the Florida House.
Republican supporters called the measure (HB 1295) a “streamlining” of the process for appointing leaders of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
“Look up an organizational chart that shows the executive branch, legislative branch and the judicial branch in Florida. And what you will see is an executive branch that is mired in inefficiency,” House sponsor Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, said before the bill was approved Thursday by the Republican-controlled State Affairs Committee in a 15-7 vote along party lines. “You have, for example … the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection), an executive level agency, not a Cabinet function on its face, an executive agency should not require Cabinet level review at all.”
The proposal came after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis clashed last year with Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat running for governor, over DeSantis’ unilateral appointment of Shawn Harrison as secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. Past appointments to the position have received Cabinet approval. Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody and Republican Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis did not oppose DeSantis’ decision.
Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, said it appears appointment power has only become an issue since the Cabinet added a Democrat. Fried was elected in 2018 after eight years of the GOP holding all Cabinet positions.
“I think that we’ve seen publicly, the governor kind of really just fights with another Cabinet member who is of the other party,” Rayner said. “And it’s just to me, it seems that the timing of this bill is ill-timed and, to me, seems that it’s a power grab.”
Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil, D-Maitland, said the current setup maintains a balance of power over the agencies, where “it’s worth having government in place to keep that balance.”
Unlike most agency heads who are appointed by the governor, leaders of the four agencies targeted in Gregory’s bill historically required votes by the governor and Cabinet. The Senate must confirm the appointments.
The proposed changes would make clear that the environmental secretary is an appointment of the governor. The Department of Highway, Safety and Motor Vehicles executive director would become a secretary appointed by the governor rather than an agency head under the governor and Cabinet.
The FDLE commissioner and Veterans’ Affairs executive director positions would shift from a requirement of needing approval from all three Cabinet members to requiring the governor to be on the prevailing side of 3-1 votes. In the case of the FDLE commissioner, the governor and attorney general would have to be in agreement.
Gregory contended the effort would further consolidate changes voters approved in 1998 to restructure the Florida Cabinet from six to three positions. The 1998 changes merged the Cabinet offices of the treasurer and comptroller as the chief financial officer and removed the elected secretary of state and education commissioner from the panel and made them appointed positions.
“When you inject politics into administrative bureaucracy, it makes government inefficient,” Gregory said. “This bill should have been done 20 years ago. It should definitely be done now.”
Back when the state had six Cabinet members, the agency head appointments required the governor to win support for appointments from three Cabinet members.
Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, said the changes would make the government more effective.
“The governor is the supreme executive power, and it shall be invested in the governor, he or she is the administrative office, chief of the state,” Payne said. “And he has every right to make the right decisions that fall under him administratively.”
Committee Chairman Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, added that the appointment process “isn’t too dissimilar to the way things are done in our federal government.”
A Senate bill (SB 1658) focused only on appointment of the environmental secretary was scheduled to be heard Tuesday by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee but was not taken up. The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, came after the controversy about DeSantis’ appointment of Hamilton.
By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida