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Facing Budget Shortfalls, New Senate Leadership Promises To Tighten Spending

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, who will serve as Senate president from 2020-22, speaks during session at the Capitol on Thursday, March 19, 2020 in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Aileen Perilla)
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Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, who will serve as Senate president from 2020-22, speaks during session at the Capitol on Thursday, March 19, 2020 in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Aileen Perilla)

The Florida Senate officially has a new president in Pasco County Republican Wilton Simpson. The new chamber leader gave remarks during the legislature’s organizational session Tuesday, giving a glimpse of how the Senate will look with him at the helm.

Much of Simpson’s remarks centered on spending, which he says will be much tighter and under scrutiny, as the legislature faces significant budget shortfalls brought on by COVID-19’s economic disruption.

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,” Simpson said during his opening remarks as chamber president Tuesday. “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.”

Simpson said the state legislature in past years has squirreled away some money for hard times, and that time has come.

"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," Simpson said. "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."

Simpson says he doesn’t think an increase to fees or taxes will be warranted to bolster state revenue.

“I do not believe that we need to increase any fees or taxes. There are multiple areas of opportunity for additional revenue. I’m thinking right off the bat, the (Seminole gaming) compact,” Simpson said. “The tribe stopped paying 18 months ago or so, $300-plus million a year. Maybe less than that now because of the effects of COVID, but there’s an example.”

In his last two years as a Florida state senator, Jacksonville Republican Aaron Bean will serve as president pro tempore of the chamber. Bean didn’t mince words when it comes to the hardships COVID-19 has brought many in Florida and the challenges that lay ahead for the legislature to address.

“We’re in the midst of a pandemic, I don’t need to remind anybody, that has wrought pain and suffering on families, businesses, and our American way of life. We have literally walked through the valley of the shadow of death,” Bean told his colleagues. “So for me, during my last term in the Senate, my focus will be on making the best of what we have.”

Bean says despite challenges from COVID-19, Florida still has a lot going for it as a state: A diverse economy, natural landscape that draws tourists and a highly-ranked college and university system.

Simpson says he looks forward to working with Democrats in his chamber, telling them during his remarks elections are over and Florida legislators have “stepped off the field of competition” and into the Senate.

South Florida Senator Gary Farmer will serve as minority leader in the chamber, and Palm Beach Sen. Bobby Powell as Senate Democrats’ president pro tempore.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.