TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature agreed on Tuesday to shield the publicly-funded travel records of Gov. Ron DeSantis, giving his administration a way to block inquiries from the media and political opponents ahead of an expected run for president.
The far-reaching bill would not only apply to DeSantis’ future movements but also could be used retroactively to deny access to information on trips he’s already taken.
GOP legislators muscled the bill through just days after lawmakers agreed to change state law to ensure that DeSantis doesn’t have to resign if he becomes the Republican nominee for president. Taken together, the moves by the GOP-controlled Legislature pave the way for DeSantis to more easily jump into the presidential race and prevent further scrutiny of his travel.
The House approved the bill by an 84-31 vote along long strict party lines — and there were four votes above the required two-thirds threshold needed to enact a public records exemption since Florida has some of the strongest open records laws in the country. Republicans gained supermajorities in the House and Senate last November at the same time voters overwhelmingly elected DeSantis to a second term.
Republicans contend that the blanket exemption for his travel history is needed for security reasons and that someone having access to records about his past trips could discern patterns that could endanger DeSantis and his family.
“This is truly a simple bill that is about safety and security,” said Rep. Jeff Holcomb (R-Spring Hill). “This bill is necessary because our senior state officials receive threats and death threats all of the time.”
Open government advocates, however, have repeatedly expressed alarm about the measure, S.B. 1616, and have said it would “blow a hole” in Florida’s well-regarded public records law. There is already speculation about mounting a possible legal challenge once DeSantis signs the bill into law.
During final debate on the measure Tuesday, Democrats questioned why GOP legislators are pushing the change through now, pointing out that the records were open under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who was the brother of President George W. Bush and was in office at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
“We are changing laws to prop up the governor’s presidential campaign, from removing ‘resign-to-run’ and now reducing access to public records for travel schedules,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando after the vote. “These are not changes made to benefit all Floridians. They are changes made to benefit one man and his political ambitions and I cannot support that.”
When asked about it Monday during a press conference, DeSantis said the legislation is “not necessarily something that I came up with” but added that he was the frequent target of threats and repeated concerns about someone being able to track his movements.
DeSantis just returned from a week-long international trip that took him to Japan, South Korea, Israel and the United Kingdom. That trip was organized through Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development arm, and is supposed to be financed through private donations.
Flight tracking records show that DeSantis used a chartered jet for the trip — an expense that could run as much as $10,000 an hour but Enterprise Florida so far has not answered questions about why the governor needed a chartered jet.
DeSantis — who released a memoir in late February — has traversed the country multiple times this year, making stops to promote the book from California to New York as well as crucial early primary states like New Hampshire and South Carolina. He is scheduled to travel to Iowa and Illinois later this month.
Under then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott — a multimillionaire who owned his own jet — the state sold off planes used by the governor and other top officials. Scott sharply criticized two of his rivals in the 2010 governor’s race by pointing to news articles that detailed how they had used the state plane at the expense of taxpayers. In one instance, a state auditor questioned whether then-Attorney General Bill McCollum had misused state resources in how he used the state plane.
After DeSantis was first elected in 2018, state legislators agreed to spend millions to acquire a jet that could be used to get the governor around the large state and where commercial travel in and out of Tallahassee is not easy.
DeSantis routinely uses a state jet to traverse the state for press conferences and public events, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been slow to turn over record requests showing when and where the state plane has been dispatched.
The bill legislators passed would not only shield DeSantis’ records from now on but also shield travel records for other top state officials who use the jet as well.