Tuesday’s first meeting of the Florida Legislature since March acted as a preview of what lawmakers can expect when they reconvene next year. Leaders of both chambers gave speeches, and in them are clues as to what lawmakers will be focusing on.
One of the first topics brought up by newly appointed Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls was law enforcement.
"For any member that wants to have an honest, thoughtful, fact-based conversation about how we can improve policing in Florida, my door and my mind are open," said Sprowls.
After extending the invitation for dialogue Sprowls, the son of a retired New York City police officer, decried the idea of defunding the police.
"We cannot blame all of law enforcement for the sins of a few," said Sprowls. "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."
Defund the Police became a slogan for activists across the country who protested the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers. What is meant by the saying differs on who you ask. Sprowls says from where he stands, defunding police is a nonstarter.
Hollywood Democratic Representative Evan Jenne, who is a co-minority leader in the House, says the idea of defunding the police has been misconstrued. He says it’s not so much about taking away money, but changing how, where and on what, it is spent.
"We have 42 members. I think if you polled them you wouldn’t find a single person that’s saying defund the police. In fact, a lot of what we are saying is going to cost a lot of money," said Jenne. "There’s a very real chance when you talk about reimagining the police and what they’re actually doing, and how they interact with communities it’s going to cost a lot of money in pilot programs, it’s going to cost a lot of money in training. There’s a very real possibility with the things that we're talking about in our caucus are the exact opposite of defunding."
After taking a shot at the defund the police slogan, Sprowls turned his focus to defending and defining patriotism.
"The very word patriotism does seem to cause some in the media and all of woke Twitter to swarm like locust. In their funhouse mirror universe, they see even the most innocuous expression of patriotism as something dark and sinister," said Sprowls. "They equate patriotism with white nationalism. But patriotism is a rejection of white nationalism and any doctrine that seeks to divide America."
Jenne however thinks it was wrong to downplay the current rise of white nationalism, and that it shouldn’t have been one of the main topics.
"Florida has an issue right now with the rise of white nationalism, so to simply just say that white nationalism is being confused with fervent patriotism I don’t think that’s really the case," said Jenne. "But I was surprised we spent so much time on culture war stuff, and Twitter and talking about how people tweet and not any time on, I mean the number 17,000 never came up once today."
That 17,000 number is a reference to how many Floridians have died from COVID-19. Jenne believes the pandemic should’ve been at the forefront of the speech. Instead after bringing up the virus quickly to talk about how it has changed everyday life, Sprowls moved on to what he views as a bigger threat.
"In Florida, we are surrounded on three sides by water. And like it or not, and you can spend as much time arguing over the why as you would like, that water is flowing into places it shouldn’t," said Sprowls. "Flooding streets, damaging homes, and ruining businesses."
Sprowls did however announce the creation of a new committee to look into the pandemic.
"This is the reason that we created the Pandemic and Public Emergencies committee. And it was a standing committee, it wasn’t a select committee as we’ve done in the past after things like hurricanes," said Sprowls. "It was really to go back and take a look at all the things that took place, how can we be prepared for future pandemics and future public emergencies."
Republicans and Democrats are starting off on opposite sides of the issue, and with lopsided numbers. Republicans dominate the legislature and are likely to get their way. When lawmakers reconvene in Tallahassee in March, they’ll be doing so still in the midst of a global pandemic, while facing budget deficits and rising infection numbers that show no sign of stopping any time soon.