His head wasn’t crowned in laurels or painted Jupiter-red, but like generals parading through Rome after a triumphal barbarian-busting campaign, House Speaker Paul Renner today exulted in considerable adoration and a standing ovation at Flagler Tiger Bay like no bringer of bacon before him, tempered though both Renner and the audience were by the club’s disfavor with uncivil partisanship.
For a trail of spoils, Renner had a list of appropriations for Palm Coast, Flagler Beach, Bunnell, Flagler County and the Sheriff’s Office approaching $100 million, by far the most government largesse ever rained on Flagler–and ostensibly by one of the most conservative, anti-government legislative sessions and House speakers–on record.
Today’s lunch was more absolution than chicken: you can be anti-government and have your Renner too, as the softball of the day, lobbed at Renner from the local chamber of commerce during the Q&A segment of his talk, suggested: “Can you talk about for the people in this room for them to hear about what the legislature did, specifically with appropriations to help support our community?”
Renner reared up with a preamble about Gov. Ron DeSantis being done with vetoes and how the federal government should also have line-item veto (the U.S. Supreme Court struck that down in 1998), plus term limits (the court struck that down in 1995) and a balanced budget, before coming back down to Flagler: “We set records for Flagler County as well as St. Johns County, another county that I represent. Never had more money,” he said.
“That money,” he continued, “is focused on infrastructure, you know, growth, beaches. In the special session, we spent hundreds of millions of dollars and part of that was frankly designed for us where we can waive some of the local match to get people into the state-managed beach program. I know the County Commission has done a lot in this area and I applaud them for all their efforts to try to get there. It’s a big undertaking got to do that.”
Through no fault of his own, Renner was a bit off in his credit-giving: the county has benefited from the wizard-like ability of its county engineer, Faith al-Khatib, to land state and federal dollars by the tens of millions, and her ability to convince agencies like the Department of Environmental protection and the Department of transportation to forego local matches. The county commissioners present at Tiger bay were happy to take the credit.
Renner gave modesty time off for lunch: “We had the courage to tackle big issues that I don’t believe had been tackled in a robust way in the past,” he said. “My chief of staff came in and we had a list of five pages of things that we wanted to accomplish and hope to get at least half of them done this session, maybe the other half next session and 75 would have been a home run,” Renner said. “Well, we got all of them done. I mean, she came in and told me we got every one of them done.”
He described it all as “an everybody wins kind of session.” Advocates for voting rights, LGBTQ rights, soundly funded public education, home rule, the freedom to read, academic freedom and racial justice, among others, some of whom were in the room, might disagree. On the other hand, Renner showed some restraint by not once sneering about anyone or anything as “woke,” as he had during the session.
Some of his sharpest culture-war ire today, and some of his grossest mischaracterizations, were reserved for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG), two bugbears of America’s hard-right.
“Has anybody heard about ESG?” he asked his audience at Hammock Dunes Club. “ESG is one of the most anti-democratic movements to come along. And essentially, it’s the global aggregation of capital.” He described a system that ought to give shareholders a voice, but as retirement assets “flow up to the likes of Blackrock and Vanguard, the asset managers, they control more money than the entire US economy–$40 trillion.” (Renner was a bit off: the figure was closer to $2.7 trillion in 2021, according to the Harvard Business Review, and only 13 percent of that, or about $350 billion, was based in U.S. funds.)
“They are committed to a more global minded agenda that says shut down America’s energy sector,” he said–a flat-out falsehood. ExxonMobil, Chevron and Phillips, America’s three largest energy companies, all have their own explicit or implicit ESG policies. “They’re calling CEOs and the only answer you can give if you’re a CEO, is Yes, sir. What can I do for you? And if you don’t, and you don’t get your mind, right, you won’t be the CEO anymore.” Another falsehood: There are no such documented cases of an American CEO getting fired for not promoting ESG.
Nevertheless, Renner confidently said: “The reporting on this has been abysmal and dishonest, frankly, but that’s what we’re actually doing.” (In another example of remarkable restraint, he attacked media only three times in his 40 minutes at the mic.)
The speaker’s rapid-fire talk was on stronger ground when he focused on actual legislative policies rather than ideological liturgy as he spoke of public safety as a priority, of removing the permit requirement for carrying concealed firearms, of increasing penalties for the “epidemic problem” of gun thieves, especially out of cars. He spoke about House Bill 1, which advanced the funding of private and home-school education with public dollars more than in any state: It provides for up to $8,000 per student either to attend private school or take advantage of private, out-of-school education.
He referred to the “digital crack cocaine” of electronic devices, which he called “an addiction. It’s causing a lot of depression, a lot of suicide. A lot of young girls are losing their self esteem as a result of what’s happening online.” Without evidence, however, he blamed the February incident at Matanzas High School, involving an autistic student reacting violently to having his electronic game removed, on the “addiction.”
He took credit for devoting $1 billion to conservation by “taking what’s left of wild Florida and making sure we set that aside,” he said. And he discussed “the most child-friendly, family-friendly tax package,” which eliminated sales taxes on a permanent basis on numerous baby-related items, and expanding Kidcare, the federal healthcare program through Medicaid, by allowing households that make up to $90,000 a year to participate. But he insisted that it was not an expansion of Medicaid.
He will be Speaker of the House for one more session, and many of the people in the room, among them a dozen elected officials–not including three judges–were lining up not only to thank Renner for the year’s successes, but to prepare the way for next year’s asks. Tiger Bay President Greg Davis said there were so many guests at today’s lunch (35), as opposed to members, that it was impossible to enumerate them, as Tiger Bay customarily does when its headliner is less burdened by tributes.