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FL Senate President Wilton Simpson Highlights Legislative Priorities

State Senate President Wilton Simpson
The Florida Channel
State Senate President Wilton Simpson addresses lawmakers on the first day of Florida's regular legislative session on March 2, 2021.

Legislation to help remedy some of the issues that arose during the pandemic are getting priority in the regular session.

“Over the next 60 days, we will address lessons learned throughout this pandemic,” said state Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Spring Hill) in his opening address, in which he also acknowledged the struggles many residents have endured during the pandemic. “It is their sacrifices which gives us motivation to make the most out of this legislative session.”

In Simpson’s speech, he highlighted a host of legislative priorities, including a proposal aimed at protecting businesses and health care providers against coronavirus-related civil suits, minimum wage increases for blue-collar workers, and a bill that would require state employees to invest in a retirement plan similar to a 401(k).

Simpson also touched on a few education and environmental bills that he'd like to see pass this session.

Another task for lawmakers over the next two months is passing a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. “The budget is going to put some constraints on us that didn’t exist a year ago,” Simpson said.

Florida is among a number of states considering legislation aimed at shielding businesses and health care providers from personal injury claims that arise from coronavirus exposure. The proposal is moving quickly in both chambers. With Gov. Ron DeSantis’s support, the legislation is likely to become law early during session, Simpson explained to lawmakers.

“The vast majority of these businesses made a good faith effort to adhere to ever-changing guidelines,” he said. “Our bills strike the right balance between shielding those that did their best under difficult circumstances, while protecting consumers.”

The Senate version of the bill - SB 72 - passed two committees this afternoon. After its third committee reading, it will move to a vote in the full chamber. And the House version - HB 7 - is headed to a floor vote later this week.

Though billions of dollars in nonrecurring federal relief aid is expected to help, he cautioned lawmakers against relying on that to cover regular expenses. “We can’t fund ongoing needs with non-recurring funds,” Simpson said. “We need to be cautious with our spending, to reexamine past initiatives to make sure they’re right for our state moving forward.”

Simpson said state lawmakers should use additional federal aid to “reinvigorate” the economy. “We can do that through one-time investments in our shovel ready road projects, our water infrastructure and we ought to replenish our unemployment trust fund, which would be a major tax cut for our Florida businesses.” The rest should replenish the state’s reserves, he said.

According to Simpson, single greatest threat to the state’s balance sheet is the growing unfunded liability in the state’s pension system, which today is at about $36 billion.

“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,” Simpson said. “It will also put the promises made to our current workers at risk. If we care about this state and our workforce, then inaction is unacceptable.”

Sen. Ray Wesley Rodrigues (R-Fort Meyers) sponsored a bill that would require state employees entering the system next year to invest in a retirement plan similar to a 401(k).

If it becomes law, it wouldn’t affect current state employees, only those who come into the system on July 1, 2022.

Simpson said lawmakers should also focus on raising the minimum wage after voters last year approved a state constitutional amendment to increase it to $15 an hour by 2026.

“They gave us a timeline to implement it, but just because they gave us the time doesn’t mean we ought to take it,” he said. “I would like this year’s budget to provide increases to our lowest paid workers. It’s one more way for us to honor these blue-collar workers who are laboring every day to provide for their families.”

Simpson didn’t mention proposed legislation that would exclude people with felony records and those younger than 21 years old from the minimum wage increase.

Simpson also touched on the need to complete Everglades restoration - which would require additional spending in this year’s budget.

“Because of the billions of dollars of investments this legislature has made over the last two decades, we can again see the Everglades for what it is: The eighth wonder of the world. Let us put aside politics and embrace a comprehensive plan for total restoration.”

On education, Simpson highlighted a proposal to consolidate the state’s five private school scholarship programs into two programs and convert the state funding for families into education savings accounts.

“The problem is right now we have a pretty confusing system with various eligibility and funding mechanisms," he said. "The ongoing pandemic has even further highlighted the important responsibility of every parent to choose the best learning environment for their child."

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.