Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to reestablish a World War II-era civilian military force that he, not the Pentagon, would control.
DeSantis pitched the idea Thursday as a way to further support the Florida National Guard during emergencies, like hurricanes. The Florida National Guard has also played a vital role during the pandemic in administering Covid-19 tests and distributing vaccines.
But in a nod to the growing tension between Republican states and the Biden administration over the National Guard, DeSantis also said this unit, called the Florida State Guard, would be "not encumbered by the federal government." He said this force would give him "the flexibility and the ability needed to respond to events in our state in the most effective way possible." DeSantis is proposing bringing it back with a volunteer force of 200 civilians, and he is seeking $3.5 million from the state legislature in startup costs to train and equip them.
The move by DeSantis comes on the heels of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's directive warning that National Guard members who refuse to get vaccinated against the coronavirus will have their pay withheld and barred from training. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, had requested an exemption for guard members in his state, which Austin denied.
Democrats in Florida immediately expressed alarm at DeSantis' announcement. US Rep. Charlie Crist, who is running as a Democrat to challenge the governor in 2022, tweeted, "No Governor should have his own handpicked secret police."
State Sen. Annette Taddeo, another gubernatorial candidate, wrote on Twitter that DeSantis was a "wannabe dictator trying to make his move for his own vigilante militia like we've seen in Cuba."
The Florida State Guard was created in 1941 during World War II as a temporary force to fill the void left behind when the Florida National Guard was deployed to assist in the US combat efforts. It was disbanded after the war ended, but the authority for a governor to establish a state defense force remained.
States have the power to create defense forces separate from the national guard, though not all of them use it. If Florida moves ahead with DeSantis' plan to reestablish the civilian force, it would become the 23rd active state guard in the country, DeSantis' office said in a press release, joining California, Texas and New York.