Florida Lawmakers Laud State's Openness as Contrast to 'Paralytic Dysfunction' in D.C.

Florida lawmakers lauded the state's openness as a contrast to "paralytic dysfunction and extreme self-regard that has ruined Washington, D.C."

At the opening day of their 60-day legislative session Tuesday, legislative leaders urged people in speeches to continue to support Governor Ron DeSantis' opposition to school lockdowns, mask mandates, and business disruptions that other states have advised as a response to the pandemic.

"First and foremost, we kept Florida open and free," said Senate President Wilton Simpson regarding lawmakers' recent work. "Faced with tremendous pressure and criticism at every step of the way, we held the line."

Representative Chris Sprowls, the House speaker, said the Legislature's work last year "stands in sharp contrast to the paralytic dysfunction and extreme self-regard that has ruined Washington, D.C."

He told reporters that although the Omicron variant is highly contagious, it appears to be a weaker strain of COVID, thus restrictions like masks in the Capitol and public hearings being held remotely are not necessary. The Capitol building does not have any current health restrictions.

"Each of these things has been different," Sprowls said. "If you feel sick, get a test."

Since the holidays, Florida's number of cases have broken records. There is an average of eight deaths per day. However, the number of people hospitalized is not similar to those in the Delta surge last summer. Over 10,700 people that tested positive for COVID on Tuesday are patients in Florida hospitals. That figure was over 17,000 the previous summer, with an average of 403 people dying each day.

Legislative Session, No COVID Restrictions, Omicron Surge
At the opening day of their 60-day legislative session Tuesday, legislative leaders urged people in speeches to continue to support Governor Ron DeSantis’ opposition to COVID restrictions. In this photo is a view of the Florida State Capitol building on November 10, 2018, in Tallahassee, Florida. Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

DeSantis is running for re-election in November and is seen as a leading 2024 Republican presidential candidate.

Lawmakers must only pass a balanced state budget in a typical year. This session, they must also draw new Florida legislative and congressional district lines to account for population gains that enabled Florida to gain a 28th U.S. House seat.

Sprowls said the economy's health, despite the pandemic, means the state should be able to meet its fiscal obligations.

"We are at a cash-rich moment in our state's history, which means we have a historic opportunity to make critical investments in long-term needs, but also a historic opportunity to waste money on short-term wants," Sprowls said. "We have the power to make this state a better, safer, more prosperous place for all Floridians. The only question that remains is, to make that happen, what are you willing to risk?"

As in past years, lawmakers' desks were decorated with bright flower arrangements while many other luminaries—Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, past legislative leaders—were introduced one by one along with numerous family members. DeSantis addressed a joint session later Friday morning.

More than 3,000 bills have been filed so far for the session, only a fraction of which will become law. Legislative leaders have not announced their own detailed agendas, but with Democrats outnumbered, the next two months will likely be dominated by the governor's priorities.

These include bills banning Critical Race Theory from schools and workplaces, creating a state office to investigate voter fraud and passing an enormous $99 billion budget with gifts for teachers, first responders and drivers. DeSantis also wants legislation that would prohibit state agencies from providing any benefits to undocumented immigrants.

The House Democratic leader, Representative Evan Jenne, said that although his party opposes the bulk of the governor's agenda there are areas where they can cooperate. Jenne cited as examples the DeSantis proposal to boost funding for foster children programs and to increase money for vocational education.

But Jenne said Democrats will not go quietly even though they are outnumbered by Republicans at every level of state government.

"We may be outnumbered, but there is a way for us to outwork them," Jenne said. "We are the voice for millions of Floridians who don't have another voice. We will fight. We will work."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.