TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida Legislature opened a 60-day session Tuesday that will take on the business of running the country’s third most populous state while tackling a slate of potentially controversial measures — from shielding businesses against COVID-related lawsuits to clamping down on protesters who turn violent.
The state Senate, its members and staff donning face masks on the chamber floor, gaveled into session shortly after 9:30 a.m., and the House followed. Bouquets festooned both chambers.
Gov. Ron DeSantis later delivered his State of the State address, saying he was looking forward to working with lawmakers on the key issues facing their state.
Both chambers, which are controlled by solid Republican majorities, will be helmed by new leaders: House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson.
Sprowls, in a moment of relative brevity, challenged his fellow lawmakers to focus on meaningful, complicated and sometimes difficult legislative measures and not "spend our days chasing praise on Twitter."
And he took swipes at the news media for depicting the legislative process as a "sporting event."
"They want to reframe session as being about only the subset of issues that they care about, or — worse — they want to turn everything into a make-believe boxing match between the House and the Senate or the Legislature and the Governor," he said.
Although it was the first day of the session, lawmakers have been traveling to Tallahassee for weeks to begin committee hearings on the measures that could eventually make to the governor’s desk. More than 2,500 bills have already been filed, but only a fraction will be heard and fewer still will get the governor’s signature and became law.
The only action lawmakers are obligated to take is passing a state budget. Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed a $96.6 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, or $4.3 billion more than the current budget.
DeSantis has laid out his priorities over the months during news conference: Winning passage of a so-called anti-riot bill, reining in Big Tech companies that invade privacy and, the governor contends, muzzle conservative speech. Earlier this week, the governor encouraged the Legislature to limit theft of intellectual property by foreign entities, singling out China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela.
While Republican lawmakers have signaled their support for the governor’s initiatives, they will have their own priorities.
The coronavirus pandemic will weigh heavily on the budget and the legislative agenda, including in how lawmakers conduct their business.
"Over the next 60 days, we will address areas for improvement based on lessons learned throughout the pandemic," Simpson said in opening remarks.
"While there is a tremendous amount of work being done as a result of the pandemic, we don’t want to lose momentum in addressing other challenges or seizing additional opportunities," he said.
"The budget is certainly going to put some constraints on us that didn’t exist a year ago. Right now, things aren’t looking as bad as they once did, and federal funding has been a part of that. But members, hear me now, none of that funding is recurring," he said.
Simpson said a key priority will be to address the state’s pension fund as its financial liabilities escalate and become "the single largest threat to Florida’s balance sheet."
Simpson noted that in 2012, when he was first elected, the unfunded liability of the state’s pension plan was $21.6 billion. Today it is $36 billion, he said.
"It is important for us to recognize that unchecked and unchanged, our pension system will continue to take a bigger share of our state budget which will crowd out funding for other priorities," he said.
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