Florida lawmakers convened for the first time in eight months Tuesday as Republican leaders gave only brief mention to the issue on the minds of all Floridians — the coronavirus and its impact — while acknowledging a $5.4 billion budget hole created by the pandemic.
Lawmakers swore in 10 freshman senators and 41 freshman House members, and named Wilton Simpson, 54, a Trilby egg farmer, as Senate president and Chris Sprowls, 36, a Palm Harbor lawyer, as speaker of the House of Representatives.
And although lawmakers didn’t talk about it, they faced it. As a testament to the omnipresence of the virus, at least nine of the 160 legislators were absent because they had tested positive for COVID-19 or had been close to someone who had. Everyone who entered the chamber agreed to be tested for the active virus.
In speeches before their mostly masked colleagues, both Simpson and Sprowls spoke of the value of family and the complex issues ahead of them. Although they acknowledged the pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 17,500 Floridians, neither of them suggested the Legislature has any role to address it.
“I think we’re going into an elevated level of COVID in the next few weeks, and it’s going to continue to elevate as we have more community spread,’’ Simpson told reporters. But the only role for legislators, he said, is to “review what has happened in the last eight months” including the executive orders issued by the governor.
Sprowls spent even less time on the pandemic, saying the state is “still trying to understand” the impact of the virus “on families, communities, churches, schools.”
“I expect much of this session will be spent on dealing with the fallout of the virus and modernizing our laws and our plans to ensure that we are prepared for future pandemics,’’ he said, offering no details on what that might be.
Neither of the presiding officers made any mention of the troubled unemployment system that has delayed payments for months for thousands of Floridians, exacerbating the economic hardship for many. Both denied that lawmakers have a role in helping contain the virus or offering a way for people who test positive and have mild or no symptoms to stay home from work and avoid spreading the virus.
“We’re not looking at it like it’s in the rear-view mirror,’’ Sprowls told reporters. But, he said, “the best thing we can do is to eliminate barriers” to employment to help people get to work “to give people a sense of purpose.”
Seated in the front row during the ceremonies for Simpson and Sprowls, was Gov. Ron DeSantis. It was one of only two public appearances the Republican governor has had since the Nov. 3 election. After months of high-profile appearances as he pushed reopening the state and campaigned for President Donald Trump, the governor has avoided the spotlight and has not commented on the president’s decision not to concede. When Sprowls’ speech was over, DeSantis quietly slipped out through a back corridor.
Notably absent was former House Speaker Jose Oliva, the Miami Lakes Republican whose two-year term ended on Nov. 3, after eight years in the chamber.
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Two Republican senators, Ray Rodrigues of Estero and Tom Wright of New Smyrna Beach, were excused after they tested positive for COVID-19. Rodrigues was hospitalized Monday night after he began experiencing worsening COVID-19 symptoms. He started treatment Tuesday morning and is feeling better by the hour, according to spokeswoman Erin Issac.
Seven House members had also tested positive, or were exposed to someone who was, and were excused: Sweetwater Rep. David Borrero, Bonita Springs Rep. Adam Botana, Coral Gables Rep. Demi Busatta Cabrera, Cape Coral Rep. Mike Giallombardo, Pensacola Rep. Michelle Salzman, Orlando Rep. Geraldine Thompson and Tampa Rep. Jackie Toledo.
Ahead of the organizational meetings, Republican leaders implemented testing protocols to block people with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis from entering either chamber. After several House members were seen maskless in the 120-member chamber, Sprowls said House members who tested positive were not allowed in the chamber and did not mingle at social events held outside of the Capitol on Monday evening.
Republicans in charge
When the 60-day session convenes March 2, Florida’s legislative leadership will look a lot like it has for the last 24 years: dominated by Republicans with Democrats in the minority.
This year, House Democrats did something different and named co-leaders, both of them from Broward County: Reps. Bobby Dubose of Fort Lauderdale and Evan Jenne of Dania Beach. Broward will be the center of Democratic influence as Senate Democrats picked as their leader Gary Farmer, a Lighthouse Point lawyer.
At a press conference, both Dubose and Jenne said they were disappointed in the absence of attention to the coronavirus as Sprowls devoted much of his message to what Jenne called “culture wars stuff.”
“What we would have liked to have heard is a plan and a direction. This isn’t anything new,’’ Dubose told reporters. “Too many Floridians have been impacted by this.”
Jenne said what is needed is “a real stream of data” and more accountability on the accuracy of the information that is coming out of the DeSantis administration, which he said is “taking a hands-off approach” to the virus.
$5.4 billion budget hole
Legislative leaders, however, cannot avoid the budget challenges they face brought on by the pandemic. Under state law, passing the state’s annual spending plan is the only piece of legislation lawmakers are required to do each year.
“Florida is more prepared than most other states,’’ Simpson told the Senate. “Over the last several years, we voted many times to set aside money to prepare for a rainy day. Senators, it’s raining. In fact, it’s pouring.”
Simpson warned that after state economists ”lowered the estimate of general revenue for this fiscal year by $3.4 billion, and another $2 billion for the next fiscal year” it will be impossible to avoid deep budget cuts to government programs.
He also raised the possibility of increasing tuition at public universities in response to budget shortfalls but vowed to make investments in Florida’s foster children, environmental projects in the northern Everglades and state infrastructure.
“We have less revenue, therefore we will have less government,” Simpson said. “That does not mean all we will do is cut the budget these next two years.”
Simpson also called for unity.
“Elections are competitions, and that means there are winners and losers, and nobody likes to lose,’’ Simpson said. “Having said that, we have stepped off the field of competition and into the Senate.”
By contrast, Sprowls was more combative. He offered a discourse about his vision of America, scolding those who call for “defunding the police” and warning against the scourge of “cancel culture” that is stifling public debate in the country.
But even his pointed calls came with a message about the need for decorum during legislative debates.
“While I can’t stop anyone from having a tantrum on Twitter please know there will be no place for that kind of Washington, D.C.-style conduct in this house,’’ Sprowls told his colleagues.
Red meat for Republicans
In September, Sprowls and Simpson joined DeSantis to call for legislation that would withhold state funds from local governments that make disproportionate budget cuts to law enforcement agencies. It is part of a wide-ranging proposal that seeks to crack down on “violent and disorderly assemblies” in response to police-brutality protests that erupted across Florida and in the United States over the summer.
Sprowls blasted the “uncharted and mostly unaccountable network of public and quasi-private entities with the authority to tax and spend and regulate private behavior” and vowed to impose fiscal controls on them.
“If Washington is a deep state, Florida is a subterranean state,’’ he said.
Sprowls and Simpson both called on the state to develop a strategic plan for sea level rise and hurricanes and bring the same level of discipline to environmental budgeting and planning as we do with transportation.
Simpson said there will be no increase in taxes although he suggested there may be room for additional revenue through the completion of a revenue compact for casino gambling with the Seminole Tribe and by raising university tuition. He said he was open to more rigorous collection of revenues for online purchases.
Both Sprowls and Simpson said they will definitely pursue immunity from lawsuits for small businesses facing potential liability from employees or customers exposed to COVID-19. But Democrats have warned that it is a solution in search of a problem because there are likely to be few claims.
After Sprowls spoke, Dubose addressed the chamber and pleaded for unity.
“COVID has affected members of this chamber in a bipartisan manner, and hopefully we can address it in the same bipartisan way,’’ he said. “During these difficult times, Floridians are enduring more than ever before, and they need us to work together to ease the access for affordable healthcare, address the affordable housing crisis, protect our environment and most importantly be unapologetic about saying Black lives matter.”
After eight months on the sidelines, Simpson and Sprowls met briefly with reporters, but they limited their questions. Reporters were not allowed inside either chamber where legislators gathered because of COVID restrictions, and the absence of access made it difficult for the media to ask questions of legislators about any policy issues.
As soon as the organizational session was done, the hallways and offices in both chambers were quiet again — noticeably absent of any legislators or staff.
Note: This story has been updated to stay in both references that members who were excused either tested positive or were exposed to someone who was.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] and @MaryEllenKlas