Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor and presidential aspirant, is owning the libs the way he knows best: by screwing over his constituents.
Under President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the most significant climate investment in American history, Florida is eligible for $346 million in residential energy rebates. These subsidies would help consumers buy energy-efficient appliances and retrofit their homes, cutting fossil fuel consumption and shrinking their energy bills—a welcome benefit for all but especially for low-income families, who are slated to receive half the funding.
Despite this, Politico reported that DeSantis recently vetoed the state’s application for the rebate funds. His office provided no explanation, but his reasons seemed obvious: In a crowded presidential primary, thwarting the Democratic incumbent is its own reward. “It’s very frustrating to see how presidential politics is hurting Floridians,” Wayne Messam, the Democratic mayor of Miramar, Florida, told me. That the state is reeling from the summer’s heat and storms and is more vulnerable to climate change than perhaps any other might make another governor reconsider turning down free climate funds. But not DeSantis.
Scuttling funds requested by a Florida legislature with a Republican supermajority exemplifies how the 44-year-old uses gubernatorial authority to roll over the popular will—and even other GOP elected officials. DeSantis has vetoed an almost unanimously popular bipartisan law that would have saved $277 million by electrifying the state’s vehicles, blocked Florida cities from requiring gas stations to add electric charging, and stood in the way of federal funding for popular and urgent climate programs. Earlier this year, he turned down $24 million in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) to upgrade rural wastewater systems, $3 million in IRA funds to fight pollution, and funds for the Solar for All program, which would have paid to help low-income households install solar panels.
While DeSantis has engaged in gubernatorial bigfooting, Messam observes that his antics are “just the same old, tired, just crazy acts” of Republican governors nationwide. During the Obama administration, GOP governors declined funds for expanded Medicaid coverage and rail lines with a zeal they usually save for cutting taxes for the wealthy. Ten GOP-controlled states still haven’t expanded Medicaid, including Florida under DeSantis. The governor’s energy rebate veto is just the latest.
But what’s new this time is the determination of Democrats not to be caught flat-footed. For local leaders like Messam, who represents over 135,000 constituents, the fight for the energy rebates isn’t over. U.S. Representative Darren Soto, a Democrat from Kissimmee, Florida, near Orlando, told the Washington Monthly that he met with Biden’s team last week about restructuring the application guidelines for the rebate program to bypass state governments.
The third-term representative is confident that this is doable. “IRA is a budget [reconciliation] bill that doesn’t delineate every aspect of how to implement the program—the Biden administration already has wide discretion to be able to go around the states,” he said. On Wednesday, Soto issued a letter signed by each of Florida’s Democratic members of Congress requesting that the federal government implement the rebate program directly or through municipal governments. “The idea was met positively in my meeting with White House officials,” Soto said.
When Biden took office in 2021, the Monthly implored him to sidestep hostile Republican governors and route federal spending directly to local governments this way. As I reported last spring, the administration took the advice. The COVID relief package Biden signed in March 2021, the American Rescue Plan (ARPA), provided $130 billion directly to cities and towns versus the $220 billion states received—a huge departure from stimulus bills under previous administrations, which directed nearly all funds to Tallahassee, Columbus, and other state capitals. “We made sure the American Rescue Plan empowered you directly—directly,” Biden told the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January. The same was true of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which made a third of all surface transportation money available to municipalities, and the IRA, which is designed to allow municipalities, which are tax-exempt entities, to take advantage of the billions in tax incentives for renewable energy by making the credits available as direct payments. “It’s a direct response to governors playing politics with increasing frequency with federal funds,” Soto said.
Despite this remarkable progress, much of the funding in Biden’s spending bills is still at the mercy of governors like DeSantis. Just months into his presidency, in May 2021, some 20 GOP-led state governments flexed their power by ending unemployment benefits under ARPA several months early. Several governors have recently joined DeSantis in rebuffing climate pollution reduction grants and the Solar for All program. As Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act spending pours into states, the specter of Republican obstructionism looms. The coming months will show whether governors have the appetite to make spurning infrastructure and climate funds the sort of conservative litmus test that rejection of Medicaid expansion was a decade ago.
But so far, Republican-led states have largely availed themselves of BIL and IRA funds instead of immiserating their constituents. Republicans have shown no hesitancy in sending press releases to cheer funding under the CHIPS and Science Act that put dollars in their districts to build semiconductor plants—even when they voted against the landmark measure.
The performative rejection of monies might be becoming passé. Biden now jokes about this. “My Republican friends who voted against [the IRA]—I still get asked to fund the projects in those districts as well,” he teased in February. “But don’t worry, I promised I’d be a president for all Americans. We’ll fund these projects, and I’ll see you at the groundbreaking.” And should DeSantis-style obstinance spread, Democrats are readying an end run. Soto said a new era of local empowerment is upon us: “There’s no question.”