The Daytona Beach News-Journal on the Florida Legislature’s priorities as its annual session convenes:
The opening day of Florida’s annual legislative session is meant to offer a road map for the next nine weeks — letting Floridians know where their lawmakers are headed and what big issues should emerge. This year, those major priorities — including dealing with the impact of the coronavirus, getting Florida’s economy back on track, evaluating how far behind K-12 students are and fixing a critically broken unemployment system — seem obvious to anyone who’s paying attention.
And with Florida’s House, Senate and governor’s office all dominated by Republicans, you’d expect the opening-day speeches to be a hymn to harmony. They were anything but.
Senate President Wilton Simpson started off the day’s ceremonies — which played to largely empty galleries due to coronavirus concerns — with a fairly routine speech that touched on many of the big issues including the uncertainty still dogging Florida’s budget-building process,as the state waits to hear how much federal relief money it might receive.
He added a rallying cry to change the way new employees enroll in Florida’s pension system, which is currently projected to have an “unfunded liability” of about $36 billion. That’s a number that’s hard to argue with, but finding the right solution won’t be easy: If the state eases new hires out of the system, it could hasten a meltdown. But it’s good that the conversation has at least started, and that Simpson seems focused on the issues.
Enough with the chest-thumping
By comparison, House Speaker Chris Sprowls went full-on culture warrior, though we’ll give him credit for keeping it short: He promised his speech would be only four minutes, and actually spoke for just a few minutes longer than that. But in that time, he offered little of substance, speaking of a “new conservative agenda” that sounded a great deal like the old conservative agenda, and warning lawmakers to be careful who they believe: “A lot has been written and said about this session that starts today. And much more will be written and said in the days and weeks to come. Most of it is nonsense. Nearly all of it is wrong.”
Some of the same themes took more concrete form when it was Gov. Ron DeSantis’ turn to speak. DeSantis is still pushing a narrative that Florida needs a slew of legislation aimed at stopping riot violence that it saw very little of, fixing voting problems that never took place and doing battle against big tech firms like Facebook that he accused of stifling conservative speech. These would be pointless initiatives in any year, but in 2021, the Legislature certainly doesn’t have time to waste on such nonsense.
DeSantis also spent a large segment of his speech, including a video clip, dwelling on his long-standing assertion that his coronavirus policies weren’t getting the credit they deserved. He pointed to the fact that Florida, which abandoned many of its lockdown protocols months before other states, ranks solidly in the middle of national rankings when it comes to infections and deaths from COVID-19. And he vowed that Florida would never again take the same kind of drastic action it took in the first few months of the coronavirus, calling Florida “a beacon of light to those who yearn for freedom.”
We can’t be quite as chipper as DeSantis is; in a state the size of Florida, the boast “We’re No. 27 and No. 28” translates into 1.9 million infections and nearly 31,000 people dead.
Florida should be doing better. But DeSantis has a point: If all the criticisms thrown at him over the past several months were valid, the state should have been hit much harder. So over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a second look at the governor’s handling of coronavirus. If we were off-base, we’ll say so. In the meantime, we’d welcome the governor to talk directly with Floridians through our pages. We’ll start by linking the text of his speech on our Opinion page.
Plenty of time left
As first days go, this one was underwhelming — and not just because of the lack of pomp and circumstance that can be so entertaining. But there are 59 days left. That’s plenty of time to dial down the political posturing and put the needs of Floridians first.
We hope that’s what lawmakers decide to do.