California vs. Florida: What you need to know before the Newsom-DeSantis debate

CalMatters photo illustration
CalMatters photo illustration

By CalMatters Staff 

It took months of haggling over the details, but the debate between Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis is really happening. They’ll go at it at 6 p.m. Thursday, live on Fox News from Alpharetta, Georgia, moderated by Sean Hannity and without a studio audience. 

The 90-minute made-for-TV event (the two governors are not actually running against each other for anything) could be substantive and focused on issues. Or it could descend into name-calling: In June, Newsom slammed DeSantis as “you small, pathetic man.”   

And while they’ll spar about many issues, they’ll spend time bragging about their home state — and trolling the other’s.  

In a fundraising video this month for his presidential campaign, Republican DeSantis called California “the petri dish for American leftism,” while Florida is the “model for revival, a model based on freedom.” 

Democrat Newsom hit back with a TV ad that started airing in Florida on Nov. 19 accusing DeSantis of making criminals of women seeking an abortion by signing a ban after six weeks of pregnancy. “That’s not freedom. That’s Ron DeSantis’s Florida,” Newsom says in the ad, which shows a “Wanted” poster with images of women and physicians.  

But how much of what the governors say will be supported by the facts? How do California and Florida really stack up? 

The CalMatters team has the answers on some key issues: 

Does it cost more to live in California? 

By Alexei Koseff 

California’s population drop over the past few years has given new ammunition to a common conservative criticism: The state’s high taxes and cost of living are driving people away. 

“People vote with their feet,” DeSantis told Fox News in June, suggesting California is “hemorrhaging wealth” and residents to Florida because of its low tax and debt burden. (The number of Californians moving to Florida is relatively small but growing.) 

California is undoubtedly expensive. Per capita spending last year on housing, utilities, health, care, food and gasoline was the fourth-highest in the country, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis — behind only Washington, D.C., Massachusetts and Alaska. 

But Florida is not substantially cheaper. It ranks 14th for per capita spending on these basics, with the average Floridian paying about 8% less last year than the average Californian. Rising housing costs and a collapsing insurance market are contributing to a growing affordability crisis in Florida as well. 

The two states diverge more on taxes. California’s state and local tax burden, as a share of income, was the fifth-highest in the country last year, according to the Tax Foundation, a conservative think tank, while Florida’s was 39th. Florida notably does not have a personal income tax. 

Newsom often defends California’s tax system by pointing out that it is highly progressive, meaning the wealthiest residents pay far higher rates than the poorest. Middle-class families have a smaller tax burden than in dozens of other states — though not Florida. 

Because of its reliance on sales and property taxes, however, Florida’s regressive tax system falls disproportionately on the poor. Low-income families there face a higher tax burden than low-income Californians, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a liberal think tank, while also receiving help from a less-generous social safety net. 

Thus, in the latest Census Bureau analysis, Florida had the third-highest poverty rate in the country last year — after Washington, D.C., and California. 

Is Florida’s economy stronger than California’s? 

By Levi Sumagaysay 

Many economists foresee a slowdown and possibly a national recession in 2024, though some of them say they expect California and Florida to fare better than the nation. Nevertheless, residents of both states are worried about their personal finances, jobs and inflation, some polls show. 

Tech firms and other companies are continuing to cut jobs in California, which faces a budget deficit and relies heavily on personal income taxes for revenue. But there’s hope: After months of slow job growth, California led the nation in jobs added in October with 40,200. That represented 26.8% of all U.S. nonfarm payroll jobs added for the month.  

California’s unemployment rate inched up from 4.7% in September to 4.8% in October.  

Florida’s unemployment rate is 2.8%, and the national unemployment rate is 3.9%. 

Florida does not have a state income tax and is largely dependent on tourism tax revenue. That revenue is under pressure because of the state’s politics, though the state says the number of visitors to the state shows it’s doing just fine.  

New laws, including those that restrict abortion rights and school curriculums, have led to travel advisories and convention cancellations amid accusations that Florida is hostile to members of the LGBTQ community, women, people of color and immigrants. As part of the culture wars going on in the state, DeSantis also is sparring with Disney, a huge source of jobs and revenue. A recently released Disney-backed study says the Walt Disney World Resort generated more than $40 billion in economic activity in the state in 2022. 

Is California’s homelessness worse? 

By Jeanne Kuang 

Yes. It’s true by every measure.  

California and Florida have the nation’s highest and third-highest homeless populations, respectively. That makes sense — it matches both states’ overall population rankings.  

But with more than 171,000 unhoused people in California in 2022, the Golden State has a much higher rate: about 44 out of every 10,000 residents are without a home. That’s more than three and a half times the rate of homeless residents in Florida, according to federal data.  

And in Florida, more than half of homeless residents are living in some kind of shelter, while two-thirds of homeless Californians live outside.  

Homelessness in Florida has actually declined by more than 50% since peaking in 2010. Through the first two years of the pandemic, the homeless count in Florida fell from more than 27,000 in 2020 to just under 26,000 in 2022, while in California it has grown steadily to a record high. 

Homelessness is driven primarily by the inability to afford a home. While it’s cheaper to build housing in Florida and there’s generally more undeveloped land, growth in both population and housing costs in the Sunshine State are warning signs about its so-far positive trends in reducing homelessness.  

A report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition showed, in 2021, Florida had more available housing units for middle- and low-income households than California. But both states faced nearly equally dire shortages in the number of housing units that are affordable to the poorest renters: There were only 23 for every 100 of those families in Florida, and 24 in California.  

In both states, too, cities have ramped up efforts to restrict encampments and panhandling. In California, though, those local laws are sometimes curbed by a 2018 federal court ruling in an Idaho case that is binding on Western states, prohibiting cities from banning camping if homeless residents have no other place to go.  

Did California or Florida handle COVID better? 

By Ana B. Ibarra 

Striking the right balance between public health and the health of their state’s economy was perhaps U.S. governors’ top challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic. Arguably, no two states represented more different approaches than California and Florida.  

On March 19, 2020, Newsom became the first governor to order residents to shelter in place because of the virus. He closed down schools and businesses, and over time issued shifting guidelines that restricted operations depending on infection rates. The state fully reopened in June 2021, almost 15 months after its initial shutdown.  

DeSantis was among the last governors to lock down his state’s economy, issuing the order two weeks after Newsom. Florida’s halt on operations was much shorter than California’s. DeSantis needled Newsom over COVID restrictions on sporting events as early as May 2020, and some businesses began to reopen just weeks after DeSantis first ordered them to close. The Sunshine state lifted most restrictions by fall 2020.  

Newsom especially took heat over his COVID policies when he faced a recall election in 2021 that he ultimately survived. Business owners and parents argued the restrictions and school closures impacted their livelihood and kids’ learning experience.  

At the time, Newsom argued his policies saved lives. He cited Florida as he contrasted his approach to proposals by a Republican opponent, Larry Elder.  

“His model is Texas and Florida, and Mississippi,” Newsom said. “We have among the lowest positivity rates in America. They have the highest positivity rates in America. We have one of the lowest case rates in America. They’re among the highest.” 

California saw an overall lower death rate compared to Florida. As of March of this year, California had tallied 256 COVID deaths per 100,000 people. Florida saw 404 deaths per 100,000 people. 

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