Following their formal swearing in as leaders of Florida’s legislature, both newly-elected Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls confronted the budget challenges facing Florida following months of shutdown and limited operations of the Florida economy caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Simpson said Florida was more prepared for crisis than most other states.
“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,” he said.
He reported the Revenue Estimating Conference lowered the estimate of general revenue for this fiscal year by $3.4 billion, and another $2 billion for the next fiscal year.
According to Simpson, Florida has a Triple A bond rating by all three rating agencies, but they warned, “If Florida relies too much on one-term sources such as reserves or CARES Act Funds, it could weaken our view on management and budgetary performance.”
“Senators, that will not happen on our watch,” Simpson said.
“We are going to tighten our belts. There will be things that we did in times of plenty that need to be eliminated in these times of lean. We have less revenue, therefore we will have less government. That does not mean all we will do is cut the budget these next two years. There will be places where we need to make investments, like our Northern Everglades, our springs, our most vulnerable children, and our state infrastructure,” he said.
Sprowls said he, too, expects much of this session will be spent dealing with the fallout of the virus and modernizing laws and plans to ensure Florida is prepared for future pandemics.
He said this will involve taking a new look at how budget decisions are made. “We need to stop congratulating ourselves on how much we spend on a problem and start asking what we are getting for the money we spend.”
Sprowls continued, “We have a vast, mostly uncharted, and mostly unaccountable network of public and quasi-private entities with the authority to tax and/or spend and/or regulate private behavior. If Washington, D.C., has a ‘deep state,’ in Florida we’ve created the ‘Subterranean State.’ It’s time we brought these entities to the surface. For the ones that can demonstrate actual positive outcomes, we need to ensure there are adequate fiscal controls and accountability measures.”
Then he warned, “And for those that are doing little other than adding administrative costs to already under-performing programs, they need to be dissolved and their functions reassigned to an accountable entity.”
Both Sprowls and Simpson were optimistic that the worse of the pandemic is behind us, with Simpson outright rejecting doom and gloom predictions of a “dark winter.”
He said there are better days ahead, “To do our job right we need to be thoughtful, strategic, and long-term in our vision. And if we do it right, and I believe we will, our state will recover and prosper in ways we cannot even imagine. But it is going to take courage and bold action.”