FL House Speaker Chris Sprowls. 

Chris Sprowls, the new Speaker of the Florida House, acknowledged Tuesday that COVID-19 will preoccupy the legislative session this year but nevertheless laid out an expansive agenda.

A lawyer and Republican representing part of Pinellas County, Sprowls announced initiatives in literacy, job training, occupational licensing reform, virtual education, broadband expansion into rural areas, and in-state tuition for the grandchildren of Florida residents.

He also urged more advance planning for hurricane recovery and improvements to the child welfare system, including better qualified case workers, expanded adoption, and support systems for older children in foster care.

As for higher education, Sprowls said universities should emphasize programs that can lead students into high-demand job markets or that require “an exceptional degree of intellectual rigor.” He also called for reduced or free tuition for virtual higher education classes.

The House operated under conditions designed to limit transmission of the coronavirus although not all members wore masks at all times — Sprowls himself removed his own during his speech but said later that every member in the chamber had tested negative for the coronavirus.

His remarks differed markedly from those offered by the new Senate president, Wilton Simpson, earlier in the day. Simpson acknowledged COVID would constrain the Legislature but promised investments in areas like the Everglades, vulnerable children, and state infrastructure. But Simpson also pledged to cut spending amid the pandemic.

Sprowls did touch on COVID during his speech.

“I expect much of this session will be spent dealing with the fallout of the virus and modernizing our laws and our plans to ensure that we are prepared for future pandemics,” he said.

“But COVID-19 remains the exception, not the rule. Most of the dangers we face are not stealth viruses.”

During a news conference, Sprowls noted that he has created a standing committee to craft the Legislature’s response to pandemics and public emergencies.

This pandemic may offer an opportunity to restructure the state’s workforce through remote work, perhaps by encouraging jobs in rural communities, he said. He also voiced support for liability shields for employers who follow health guidelines lest they be targeted by “frivolous” lawsuits.

This report first appeared on the website of the Florida Phoenix, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to coverage of state government and politics from Tallahassee.