Florida GOP celebrates wins as coronavirus challenges still loom

“We didn’t just hold the line,” Sprowls said. “We didn’t just pick up one seat or two. We picked up five.”

Florida GOP celebrates wins as coronavirus challenges still loom

On the eve of getting the gavel as Florida House speaker, Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls took a bit of a victory lap Monday.

After formally being selected by his fellow House Republicans to lead them for the next two years, Sprowls gave a speech that focused heavily on one number: 78.

That is the number of House seats Republicans hold after expanding their already-large majority in the Nov. 3 elections by five seats. During a GOP caucus meeting in the House chamber, Sprowls recounted warnings he received that Democrats would pick up seats --- and the money that came in from outside groups to support Democratic candidates.

“To all those national groups with their progressive donors and their fancy Washington, D.C., strategists, all I have to say is this: 78,” Sprowls said, drawing a standing ovation from Republican House members.

Sprowls proceeded to point out a series of GOP lawmakers who won key races and said Republicans “outworked and outfought our opponents.”

“We didn’t just hold the line,” Sprowls said. “We didn’t just pick up one seat or two. We picked up five.”

Sprowls’ speech came as lawmakers prepared to gather Tuesday for a one-day organization session in which he will become House speaker and Trilby Republican Wilton Simpson will become Senate president. Lawmakers also will be formally sworn in, with Republicans holding a 78-42 majority in the House and a 24-16 majority in the Senate.

Senate Democrats gathered late Monday afternoon at the same time as House Republicans and tapped Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, to be their leader for the next two years. Senate Democrats lost one seat in this month’s elections, with incumbent Jose Javier Rodriguez losing to Republican Ileana Garcia in a Miami-Dade County district.

During a party caucus meeting in the Old Capitol, Farmer urged lawmakers to put aside partisan differences as they address the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, which has rocked the economically critical hospitality and tourism industries and exposed problems with Florida's unemployment system.

“This crisis has also highlighted many of the problems that we have known to exist well before the pandemic even started,” Farmer said. “As record numbers of Floridians were forced to seek help when the pandemic forced them out of their jobs, they were greeted with a system riddled with pitfalls. To some (the unemployment system) seemed designed to fail. While the inaccessible design and meager benefits of Florida's unemployment system have long been a point of major concern for our caucus, we have reached a point where no legislator could harbor a single doubt about the desperate need for us to take a hard look at our unemployment system.”

Farmer and other Democrats maintained they will continue to push for increased access to health care, banning “assault” weapons, protecting the environment, funding public schools and reforming the criminal-justice system.

“We are the party of the worker, of the people, and leader-designate Farmer understands that,” Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said during the meeting.

Farmer acknowledged Democrats have been frustrated by the Legislature not being called back into a special session to address problems caused by the pandemic. Republican leaders for months have rejected Democratic calls for such a session.

While they celebrate the election victories, however, Republican leaders ultimately will face huge challenges as they try to guide the state through the pandemic, which continues to add thousands of cases a day in the state. Among other things, the GOP will be in charge of drawing up a state budget that faces large projected shortfalls because of a plunge in tax revenues during the pandemic.

During the House Republican caucus meeting, Rep. Bryan Avila, a Miami Springs Republican who was chosen to serve as speaker pro tempore, noted the challenges.

“These are unprecedented times. There’s no doubt about that,” said Avila, who will be a top lieutenant to Sprowls. “What we do in the coming months will shape Florida’s future. In the past six years, this House has had to make tough decisions. And just as in previous years, the people of Florida have strongly supported our vision and our message.”

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