TAMPA, Fla — Last Thursday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to sue the Biden administration over vaccine mandates — and more lawsuits could also be generated by whatever comes out of a proposed special legislative session on the same issue.
Supporters say DeSantis is pushing through laws that are popular with his base, but his critics say he’s creating legal challenges that then have to be defended at taxpayers’ expense.
“We’re going to exhaust every legal option we have,” DeSantis vowed at a press conference in Clearwater.
The governor’s latest policy target is federal vaccine mandates which are winning him political points with his supporters.
“I think we have to do it. I think we have to stand up for people’s jobs and their livelihoods,” DeSantis said. “That’s what we need.”
But critics have started to question how much the governor’s legal leanings are costing Florida taxpayers.
“There is millions of dollars being spent right now on litigation over different Covid related issues,” said State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando). “This is public money. And of course, any special session costs public money as well,” she said.
The DeSantis administration is already facing legal challenges from local governments, school boards and parent groups over masking. Cruise lines and dozens of venues that challenge the state‘s vaccine passport ban have also vowed to defend their positions. Civil rights groups are suing over the so-called "anti-riot" law. Voting rights groups are in court over ballot box issues.
10 Tampa Bay political expert Lars Hafner says it’s possible DeSantis might even suspect he’ll lose some of the lawsuits, but not before winning support from his base.
“They’re winning the messaging. And that’s what they want to do,” Hafner said. “But it’s costing the taxpayers of Florida a boatload of money.”
The governor says committing those resources is a matter of principle.
“If we have unconstitutional mandates coming down from the federal government, we have a responsibility to fight back and defend the constitutional system,” he said. “And we’ll do it.”
But critics say DeSantis is playing politics. Using taxpayer money paid, at least in part, by some of the very same people opposing his policies.
“I think people want government to do what I supposed to do to create pathways to health and prosperity,” State Rep. Fentrice Driskell (D-District 63) said. “But then otherwise get out of the way.”
While it’s difficult to put a dollar figure on the cost of all state litigation, some perspective may come from a 2011 and 2017 total calculated by The Associated Press.
It found Florida had to pay $19 million in attorney’s fees just to lawyers who’d successfully sued the state on various issues. That did not include money the state spent on its own lawyers or paid out to attorneys from outside law firms to defend those legal positions.
Critics also question the necessity and cost of calling a special session to discuss the vaccine mandates. They say a full special session could cost taxpayers $1 million when the regular legislative session starts just days later, on Jan. 11th.