FL Senate elects new president, Wilton Simpson, who pledges to cut spending amid pandemic

FL Sen. Wilton Simpson, sworn in as the 89th president of the Florida Senate. (Nov. 17, 2020). Credit: Florida Channel, screenshot.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, sworn in Tuesday morning as the 89th president of the Florida Senate, pledged to cut spending and make “structural changes” to the state budget to reflect Florida’s pandemic-ravaged economy.

“We are going to tighten our belts. We will have less revenue, therefore we will have less government,” said the Republican senator, elected in 2012 to represent Citrus and Hernando and part of Pasco county.

But he called for ongoing investments in the northern Everglades, Florida springs, vulnerable children and state infrastructure.

Simpson thanked Gov. Ron DeSantis for his handling of coronavirus, but also paused for a moment of silence to acknowledge the COVID-19 deaths of more than 17,500 people in Florida.

Simpson, whose businesses include an egg farm, said he will lead a session to clean the “budget field” by removing “all the roots” that reflect past legislative priorities and policies, rather than new ones that reflect Florida’s new realities. The state’s fiscal experts estimate a $3.4 billion loss of state revenue this fiscal year and and other $2 billion loss in the next one.

He also called for cooperation between Republicans, who strengthened their control of the Senate in the rancorous Nov. 3 elections, and Democrats, who lost three seats.

“This is where campaigns end and governing begins,” Simpson said. “We are senators and we have a lot of work to do.”

In receiving the gavel from outgoing Senate President Bill Galvano, Simpson and Galvano, not wearing masks, embraced. Elsewhere, members in the Senate chamber largely wore masks and sat distanced from one another.

The Senate also elected Sen. Aaron Bean on Tuesday, as president pro tempore. He represents Nassau and part of Duval County.

In a press briefing after Tuesday’s ceremonies, Simpson said he expects there will be no reform of Florida’s beleaguered unemployment system nor changes in the statewide approach to the pandemic, saying infection control requires Floridians to take “greater personal responsibility.”

But he does expect legislators will pass a COVID liability shield for businesses, early in the session. Also, leaders will analyze Gov. DeSantis’ executive orders, including his orders to temporarily shut down and stay home, to look for ways to avoid any lockdown in a future pandemic.

Further, Simpson said budget-makers will look at the state budget of 2008-09 — the grim years of the Great Recession — for guidance in setting the budget for 2021-22, and they will not increase taxes and fees to help offset $5.4 billion in revenue losses expected over the next two years. He said K-12 education funding has grown ten-fold since then — reflecting “times of plenty” — and must return to funding that reflects “times of lean.” He also suggested the state will raise college tuition rates.

Also under scrutiny, he said, are “big projects in the budgets” such as outgoing Senate President Bill Galvano’s controversial pet project to build large expensive toll highways through swaths of undeveloped Florida. The Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, or M-CORES, would consume more than $100 million in the coming budget year. “You have to ask yourself, can you afford that in this moment? And those are questions that will be asked” Simpson told reporters.

Laura Cassels
Veteran journalist Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, has a home in Tallahassee and has a farm in South Georgia, where her extended family grows blueberries, grapes and pecans. She is a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]