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Incoming Florida Senate President: Special Legislative Session Unnecessary​

Steven Walker Fresh Take Florida
Walton Sun

The incoming president of Florida's Senate is pushing back on the idea of recalling the Legislature to the Capitol for a special session to deal with economic consequences of the pandemic, the upcoming elections or other matters.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, said he may reconsider in June the need for a special session. But Simpson said Florida's deep $4 billion in reserves can help it weather the financial problems caused by the virus shutdown, and he believes Gov. Ron DeSantis has authority to appropriate pending federal aid and state matching money without approval by lawmakers.

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Simpson, the Senate's president-elect, made the remarks in an interview this week with Fresh Take Florida, a news service operated by the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.

“Because Florida had been so fiscally responsible with the taxpayer dollar, we’re actually in pretty good shape right now,” Simpson said. “When the data gets updated here in another three to five weeks ... we may have to have a special session. If that were to be the case I believe that the special session would focus on areas of the budget that we could trim this year because obviously there would be a shortfall in revenues.”

Simpson said he believes DeSantis could appropriate federal emergency matching funds himself, nullifying the need for a special session. But he said lawmakers were prepared to return to Tallahassee if needed.

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“We believe that the governor currently has the mechanisms to spend those dollars,” he said. “That is a question. If we end up with our legal team requiring us to come in to spend those dollars, we’re prepared to do that.”

The Legislature ended its session March 19 – as the pandemic was worsening but weeks before DeSantis issued his stay-at-home orders – when it passed the state’s $93 billion budget for 2021.

DeSantis has until June 30 to sign and line-item veto parts of the budget. It's unclear whether the governor would do so without a special session to appropriate matching funds to the federal government’s emergency money for Florida, or to adjust the budget to accommodate projected losses due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The outgoing House speaker, Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Hialeah, has openly complained that the government's response to the pandemic has been overblown. Oliva tweeted earlier this week: "We are past the limit of acceptable government intervention in a free society. We measure COVID cases but who is measuring the widespread destruction of people’s personal and financial lives?"

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Oliva said in a published statement last week that the expected impact on Florida’s budget “may require us to return to Tallahassee soon, and perhaps subjects outside of spending will be addressed.” The statement was provided to the News Service of Florida.

Oliva said those other subjects could include “powers granted to governments and their limitations with regards to our individual liberties in moments of crisis.”

Democrats, the minority party in both houses in the Legislature, have been pressing for a special session to consider Medicaid expansion, unemployment and elections.

Separately, advocacy groups have sued Florida to compel changes to upcoming elections over the pandemic, such as broadening the ability to vote by mail or accommodating social-distancing recommendations at polling stations.

Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, said a special session to consider election changes is unlikely, since no one can predict the state of the pandemic by August’s primaries or November’s general elections.

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“I think that’s way too early,” he said. “You look at predictions and models, almost every single model that we’ve been given has been overstated. You look at the plateauing and the downward trending of the virus. I can’t imagine that come November that you’ll have any major issues that were a cause of the virus.”

Perry said a special session may be needed to decide how to spend federal pandemic aid under the $2 trillion federal coronavirus relief package known as the CARES Act.

“What are the rules and what are the strings and does the Legislature need to be involved in the allocation of those funds?”

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at stevenwalker@ufl.edu.​