New FL House Speaker lays out expansive agenda notwithstanding COVID-19

FL House Speaker Chris Sprowls. Credit: Florida Channel, screenshot.

Chris Sprowls, the new Speaker of the Florida House, acknowledged Tuesday that COVID-19 will preoccupy the legislative session this year but nevertheless laid out an expansive agenda.

A lawyer and Republican representing part of Pinellas County, Sprowls announced initiatives in literacy, job training, occupational licensing reform, virtual education, broadband expansion into rural areas, and in-state tuition for the grandchildren of Florida residents.

He also urged more advance planning for hurricane recovery and improvements to the child welfare system, including better qualified case workers, expanded adoption, and support systems for older children in foster care.

As for higher education, Sprowls said universities should emphasize programs that can lead students into high-demand job markets or that require “an exceptional degree of intellectual rigor.” He also called for reduced or free tuition for virtual higher education classes.

Sprowls spoke following his unanimous election by the House as Speaker through 2022 during an organizational session that followed the November election.

The House operated under conditions designed to limit transmission of the coronavirus although not all members wore masks at all times — Sprowls himself removed his own during his speech but said later that every member in the chamber had tested negative for the coronavirus.

His remarks differed markedly from those offered by the new Senate president, Wilton Simpson, earlier in the day. Simpson acknowledged COVID would constrain the Legislature but promised investments in the northern Everglades, Florida springs, vulnerable children, and state infrastructure. But Simpson also pledged to cut spending amid the pandemic.

Sprowls did touch on COVID during his speech.

“I expect much of this session will be spent 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.

“But COVID-19 remains the exception, not the rule. Most of the dangers we face are not stealth viruses.”

During a news conference, Sprowls noted that he has created a standing committee to craft the Legislature’s response to pandemics and public emergencies.

This pandemic may offer an opportunity to restructure the state’s workforce through remote work, perhaps by encouraging jobs in rural communities, he said. He also voiced support for liability shields for employers who follow health guidelines lest they be targeted by “frivolous” lawsuits.

House Democratic co-leader Evan Jenne of Broward County complained that the speech “glossed over” COVID, which has killed 17,559 Floridians and is spiking again, nor about the melt down of the state’s unemployment compensation system.

“We’d like to hear a plan or direction,” said Bobby Dubose, also of Broward, who shares the minority leadership responsibilities and joined Jenne at a news conference.

“We’ve had almost a year to live through this, and so we need to offer the residents of Florida a plan as far as what we’re going to do and we didn’t hear that,” Dubose said.