COVID-19 shields for businesses, protest crackdown lead the agenda for new Florida leaders

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Gray Rohrer, Orlando Sentinel
·7 min read
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TALLAHASSEE — The tumult brought by the coronavirus, economic downturn and mass protests over police conduct this year has dramatically altered the outlook for Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson, who took the reins of the Legislature on Nov. 17.

For the first time in a decade, the state faces a projected budget shortfall. Unemployment has spiked amid the pandemic before falling slightly to stand at 6.8% in October, but 659,000 Floridians remain out of work. Cases of COVID-19 continue to rise and the state eclipsed 18,000 reported deaths.

While Sprowls and Simpson say dealing with the pandemic will consume much of the legislative session when it begins in March, much of their agenda remains the same formula GOP leaders have used to run the state since Republicans took power in the 1990s: don’t raise taxes, pass business-friendly legislation, cut regulations and support school choice programs.

However, the pair bring their own personal backgrounds that will influence how they steer their chambers in the next two years. Their philosophies will shape how the state rebounds from the pandemic and addresses social issues.

Sprowls, 36, is a former state prosecutor from Pinellas County and the son of a former New York City police officer with a deep respect for law enforcement. He has a natural instinct to resist not only some of the police reforms favored by protesters incensed about the murder of George Floyd, but also the criminal justice reforms that some Republicans favor to reduce costs and cut back on draconian sentences for nonviolent crimes.

Even so, he said during his opening speech he’s open to hearing out all sides on the issues.

Simpson, 56, is an egg farmer from Trilby, a rural town in Pasco County. His background gives him an understanding and interest in agriculture and environmental issues, and in his comments to reporters he indicated a desire to bring more structure to state environmental spending.

COVID-19

One of the first issues on the agenda will be giving businesses protection from liability for COVID-19-related lawsuits. Gov. Ron DeSantis has named it at the top of his agenda, and although Sprowls and Simpson rebuffed his push to pass a bill this month, they want to approve something early in the session.

The details of the bill, however, will need to be worked out among lawmakers before it gets to DeSantis’ desk.

Simpson and Sprowls said businesses need liability protection to thwart a spree of potential lawsuits from customers and employees or their relatives who might have contracted the virus on their premises and suffered lost wages while in the hospital or even died. But they also said they’re unlikely to grant total protection in every circumstance for businesses that flaunted rules.

“I don’t think you ever in any condition put a blanket statement that no one would ever any liability associated with (COVID-19),” said Simpson, who was on DeSantis’ task force that developed recommendations for his reopening plan. “But I think if you made the right attempt to follow the CDC guidelines, then that’s something we should take a look at.”

Police and protests

Long before this year’s protests over police treatment of African-Americans, criminal justice reform advocates pointed to Sprowls as the reason the House blocked or watered down bills aimed at reducing sentences and punishments for minor and nonviolent offenses. Such reforms have gained more traction in the Senate in recent years, even among Republicans.

Sprowls said his background factors into his view of criminal justice issues but it’s also driven by what he believes is the top priority of government: public safety.

“Certainly that’s influenced how I’ve seen firsthand things play out in the courtroom for victims of crimes and what that looks like for them, so I’m super sensitive to that,” Sprowls said in an interview. “But I also believe the reason that government was created to begin with was to keep people safe.”

Sprowls also was on hand, along with Simpson, with DeSantis when he unveiled a proposed bill to increase penalties for protesters who cause civil disturbances, attack police or block roads. The measure alarms Democrats and civil rights advocates who fear it would violate the constitutionally protected right to protest.

Rep. Evan Jenne, a co-leader of the House Democrats with Rep. Bobby DuBose, said Sprowls and DeSantis aren’t focused on what led to the protests in the first place.

“What the reaction seems to be is, ‘we don’t want these loud people out in the streets of the state of Florida,” said Jenne, D-Dania Beach.

The move also dampened hopes the Legislature could take up criminal justice reforms that have failed to pass in recent years, such as softening penalties for those who’ve had their driver’s license suspended or revoked, allowing elderly inmates who qualify to be released early or hold sentence reviews for young adult offenders.

The Republicans’ showing in the election, however, where they gained five seats in the House and one seat in the Senate and hold comfortable advantages over Democrats in both chambers, means Sprowls and Simpson have plenty of political cover to push their agendas. Nevertheless, DuBose said Democrats are likely to staunchly oppose DeSantis’ proposal.

“Regardless of what the governor’s pushing as his agenda, it starts with (the Legislature),” DuBose said. “We’re the ones that need to start and put policy forward and shape this legislation that’ll affect residents of Florida.”

Rising seas

“Sea level rise is a serious problem,” Simpson told reporters last week. “We know sea level rise is happening.”

The statement would have seemed shocking coming from a Republican leader a decade ago. But as sunny day flooding in cities like Miami Beach and other coastal areas have become commonplace, GOP lawmakers have warmed to the idea of addressing the effects of climate change, even if they avoid saying the phrase, as Simpson did.

Simpson isn’t envisioning a kind of Green New Deal for Florida that Democrats might favor, however. He laid out a plan to overhaul state spending on environmental projects, envisioning something akin to the five-year work plan the Department of Transportation uses to set priorities. That process is seen as a way to depoliticize some of the spending, ordering projects in terms of need and how they’ll blunt the effects of rising seas, instead of where powerful legislators want money for projects.

“We need to identify our most vulnerable areas where the need is, and it’s not like we don’t have engineers that can tell us that around the state and develop a priority list,” Simpson said. “Then we’re going to have to put a budget plan together to help the local governments with their budgeting on this.”

Health care

In Sprowls’ nearly 5,000-word speech to open the largely ceremonial organizational session on Nov. 17, he touched on plenty of key conservative issues. But he also mentioned an issue that’s already earning applause from Democrats: health disparities for pregnant Black women.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from 2019 shows that there were 40 pregnancy-related deaths for every 100,000 live births for African-American women between 2007 and 2016, more than three times the rate for white women.

“The idea that there are children who (at birth) would have less of an opportunity to be born healthy and therefore have all of the health risks that are associated with being premature bothers me a great deal,” Sprowls said.

Democrats have been highlighting the issue for years, but it hasn’t gained traction in the Legislature. Rep. Kamia Brown, D-Ocoee, filed a bill in 2019 to set up a task force to make recommendations to the Department of Health to prevent deaths of pregnant women, but it didn’t get a hearing.

But Sprowls said he’s heard from several Democrats since the speech eager to work with him on the issue.

“This should be something we should fix; it shouldn’t be controversial,” Sprowls said.

grohrer@orlandosentinel.com

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