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Florida lawmakers convene in Tallahassee, clouded by virus and economy

John Kennedy
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Legislature convened Tuesday for a post-election organization session, with the spread of the coronavirus and economic collapse shadowing lawmakers who had not met in eight months.

Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls presided as newly sworn-in House speaker, and across the Capitol Rotunda, new Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, picked up the gavel for the first time in command.

But while the House and Senate enacted COVID-19 protocols, it did not take long for the virus to make its presence felt at the gathering of lawmakers. Seven Florida House members were excused from session because they had tested positive earlier or after traveling to the capital, or had been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Sen. Tom Wright, a New Smyrna Beach Republican, also tested positive after arriving Monday at the Capitol, and missed Tuesday’s session.

Wright, 68, was said to be feeling well and not exhibiting symptoms. He had not interacted with fellow senators or staff since arriving in Tallahassee, said Katie Betta, a Simpson spokeswoman.

There also was a contrast between the House and Senate in COVID precautions. While all senators were required to wear masks on the floor during the brief session, the House had no mandate, and about a dozen lawmakers mingled unmasked with their colleagues wearing face coverings.

“All the members in the chamber had tested negative,” Sprowls insisted.

While the House has created a Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee, chaired by Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, Sprowls said the committee’s focus will be on “lessons learned from this” pandemic.

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“We need to be able to figure out how we make Floridians more prepared for the future,” he said.

Florida is still reeling from COVID-19, but it appeared that neither Simpson nor Sprowls had immediate plans to help the state combat the spread of the virus.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls makes his first speech in his new position during the Florida Legislature’s Organization Session at the Florida Capitol on Tuesday.

There were only 432 coronavirus cases in Florida when lawmakers were last in Tallahassee, with nine Floridians dead from the illness. Now, Florida has topped 885,000 cases, and more than 17,500 Floridians have died from the virus.

“I don’t think anyone in their right mind would say this is going really well right now,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, co-leader of the House Democrats.

There are 3,240 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Florida, with 26% of hospital beds still available across the state. The positivity rate for new cases in the state has been 7.6% over the past two weeks – above the 5% level state officials had hailed earlier this year.

The state has averaged 5,307 cases daily since Nov. 1, according to the Florida Health Department. Florida’s daily case average is more than double what it was at the end of September, records show.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who attended Tuesday’s session but did not speak publicly to lawmakers or reporters, has largely followed President Donald Trump’s approach in downplaying the pandemic and driving the state toward maintaining a reopened economy.

Gov. Ron DeSantis stands for the singing of the National Anthem during the Florida Legislature’s Organization Session at the Florida Capitol on Tuesday.

DeSantis has dismissed any talk of ordering Florida to undergo another shutdown to deal with another spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The reopened economy has helped pull in slightly better-than-expected tax receipts in recent months.

But just as the virus hovered over the session, so did Florida’s struggling economy. The state is facing a $2.7 billion shortfall for the 2021-22 budget, which lawmakers will begin shaping in coming weeks.

“We will have less revenue, therefore, we will have less government,” Simpson told senators.

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The bulk of state tax dollars are poured into education and health and human services programs, both areas that may cause deep problems if reduced during the pandemic. Both Simpson and Sprowls said they would be looking at easing these cuts by finding savings in other parts of the state’s $92.2 billion budget.

Sprowls targeted what he labeled a “vast, mostly uncharted and mostly unaccountable network of public and quasi-public entities” that spend taxpayer dollars through obscure boards, public agencies and outsourced contracts for services.

Outgoing Senate President Bill Galvano hands the gavel over to new Senate President Wilton Simpson during the Florida Legislature’s Organization Session at the Florida Capitol on Tuesday.

Simpson raised the possibility of working on a new, revenue-producing gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe and advancing the state’s ability to collect taxes on e-commerce and remote vendors.

Both approaches could draw hundreds of millions of dollars into the state’s pandemic-battered treasury.

The new Senate president also said it may make sense to raise college and university tuition, which has been untouched for a decade. “I think that is a viable opportunity,” Simpson said.

And Simpson raised the possibility of pausing big-ticket spending items already tucked into the state budget, including the roughly $100 million earmarked for developing three new toll roads, which had been a priority of his predecessor, former Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

Costly work on a new reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, to reduce the threat of flooding, also could be revisited. That had been the goal of another former Senate president, Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘Can you afford that in this moment,’” Simpson said of these major budget investments.

Outgoing Senate President Bill Galvano speaks during the Florida Legislature’s Organization Session at the Florida Capitol on Tuesday.