TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After a tumultuous national election year in which a virus has gripped the world with fear, Florida’s two new legislative leaders gave a message of hope for 2021 as lawmakers met in a one-day session Tuesday.
It came at a time when President Donald Trump convincingly carried the state and Republicans gained seats in the Legislature. But the message Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls sent was one that seeks to cross a divide.
“When I say that patriotism is about love, I don’t use that word lightly. I would never use it lightly,” Sprowls said. “Real love recognizes that no one is perfect and that we are not simply the sum of our worst moments. We forgive those we love because we can separate the person from the mistakes they have made. That kind of love, when applied to our country, that is patriotism.”
He also encouraged lawmakers to listen with respect to those who have different opinions.
“While I certainly can't stop anyone from having a tantrum on Twitter, please know that there will be no place for that kind of Washington D.C.-style conduct inside this chamber or in this House. We can disagree and still treat one another with goodwill, patience and mutual respect,” Sprowls said.
Sprowls and Simpson talked about the difficult task of recovering from the pandemic. Simpson said he was grateful that lawmakers in previous years had set aside savings in case of an emergency.
“Fortunately, Florida is more prepared than most other states,” Simpson said. “Over the last several years, we voted many times to set aside money to prepare for a rainy day. Senators, it’s raining. In fact, it’s pouring.”
But while Simpson said the state will have to cut its budget, lawmakers can't forget about priorities.
"There are places where we need to make investments, like our northern Everglades, our springs, our most vulnerable children, and state infrastructure," he said. To do our job right we need to be thoughtful, strategic, and long-term in our vision," he said.
The speeches marked the first time lawmakers have come together since March, when the state began a lockdown as the coronavirus spread. The Capitol is still closed to the public, and most lawmakers wore masks on the chamber floors.
In separate phone interviews, Sprowls and Simpson talked about how the pandemic will present a new challenge for the Legislature.
"This has been a time of crisis in our state both with COVID-19 as well as economically and the impact that it’s had on people and families, communities, businesses. Where some people see crisis, I see opportunity,” Sprowls said. “There’s a great opportunity for us as legislators to remake Florida in a better way.”
He said that includes rethinking the state's approach to education and creating jobs in rural areas. Both leaders also said the state needs to plan for sea level rise.
“Obviously, no matter what you believe in climate change ... it is a scientific fact that the sea level is rising and will continue to rise, according to scientists, over the next few hundred years, and so we need to prepare for that,” Simpson said.
Lawmakers will begin their annual session in March.