Moments after he became Florida Senate president, Wilton Simpson pretty much summed up where things stand for lawmakers.
"None of us who were here last session could have predicted what we are facing today," the Trilby Republican told senators. "Our focus will be different because our world is different."
The House and Senate gathered last week in the Capitol for a one-day organization session, usually a festive event with family members and supporters celebrating as lawmakers and leaders are sworn in after winning elections.
But like the rest of the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, festiveness was in short supply.
Nine lawmakers couldn't participate in the organization session because they tested positive for the virus or had been exposed to it. Most others wore masks. Guests were limited. The Capitol building was closed to the general public, as it has been for months.
And the hard work hasn't even started.
When lawmakers return to the Capitol in January to hold committee meetings in advance of the March start of the 2021 session, they will be confronted with a gaping budget hole caused by the pandemic's economic damage.
Like Simpson, new House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, alluded during a speech to House members about the changes COVID-19 has created for them.
"COVID-19 came roaring into our lives, and nothing has been quite the same," Sprowls said. "We are still trying to understand all the ways and account for them that this virus has impacted – and continues to impact – families, communities, churches and schools. I expect much of this session will be spent dealing with the fallout of the virus and modernizing our laws and our plans to ensure that we are prepared for future pandemics."
Gov. Ron DeSantis, however, tried to offer a dash of hope this week as he released a video touting rapidly developing vaccines and therapeutic drugs.
"I do believe that these breakthroughs represent probably the greatest rays of hope that we have seen since the pandemic began," DeSantis said. "They offer the prospect of saving thousands and thousands of lives, and to potentially bring this pandemic to an end."
TAKING THE GAVELS
Sprowls and Simpson worked for years to become House speaker and Senate president, two of the most powerful jobs in the state.
And they drew most of the focus during Tuesday's organization session, outlining priorities and their views on issues.
For example, Sprowls, a former prosecutor and the son of a retired New York police officer, went head-on into the thorny issue of police and race. That issue likely will play a part in the 2021 legislative session, as DeSantis wants to pass what is being dubbed "anti-mob legislation" that could affect protesters – an idea that is being widely criticized by Democrats and civil-liberties groups.
"I do not dismiss nor do I minimize the complicated issues and historical entanglements surrounding police and race in the United States," Sprowls said. "I recognize that my own experience has its limitations, and that emotions can run high. But passion isn't the measure of good policy. And when dialogue descends into diatribe, when it leads to the vilification of an entire profession, when it becomes a justification for violence and lawlessness, then we have abandoned reason for rage. And that is where we should all draw the line."
"We cannot blame all of law enforcement for the sins of a few," Sprowls continued. "We must not take action that puts the lives of Floridians at risk. And we should not allow any government in Florida to defund the police."
Simpson, meanwhile, made clear that austerity measures – including potentially the first public university tuition increases in a decade – are on the horizon as the state grapples with a loss of billions of dollars in projected tax revenue because of the pandemic.
"We will tighten our belts," Simpson told senators. "We have less revenue, therefore we will have less government."
Speaking to reporters later, Simpson floated the possibility of funding cuts for the state's K-12 system, citing increases in public-school spending over the past dozen years. He also pointed to university tuition increases – which were off limits under former Gov. Rick Scott – as a "viable opportunity."
"We want to make sure that we maintain a very high level of higher education. But at the same time, we have kids that are in foster care because we don't have resources to be able to manage that system," said Simpson, who has made improvements to the foster-care system one of his chief priorities.
ALL IN THE NUMBERS
After months of DeSantis trying to reinvigorate the economy, the state got some relatively positive news this week about jobs.
The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity on Friday announced that the October unemployment rate was 6.5 percent, down from 7.2 percent in September. Also, the U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday estimated that 21,538 initial jobless claims were filed in Florida during the week that ended Nov. 14, down from 31,402 the prior week.
But other numbers this week reflected the depth of problems caused by the pandemic.
For instance, Florida continues to see increasing Medicaid enrollment, with an estimate now that as many as 4.6 million people will rely on the health-care program in the upcoming fiscal year, according to the state's Medicaid office.
A revised projection of enrollment for the 2021-2022 state fiscal year, which will start July 1, includes about 220,000 more people than economists previously projected.
"We are seeing increases still. Pretty big increases," Tom Wallace, the state Agency for Health Care Administration's assistant deputy secretary for Medicaid finance analytics, told members of a panel known as the Social Services Estimating Conference on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Visit Florida released a report that said the tourism industry saw a nearly 32 percent drop in visitors during the third quarter compared to the same period last year.
But that was actually an improvement over a 60.5 percent drop in tourism in April, May and June as businesses closed or scaled back to try to slow the spread of the virus.