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Palm Harbor's Chris Sprowls Selected New Florida House Speaker

Chris Sprowls
Florida House of Representatives
Chris Sprowls in the House

The Tampa Bay area should get a larger voice in the state legislature next year. Members of the Florida House on Tuesday named Chris Sprowls of Pinellas County as its next speaker.

Sprowls has served two terms in the Florida House in the 65th District, which includes Clearwater, Dunedin, and Tarpon Springs. He currently chairs the House Rules Committee and sits on the Appropriations Committee.  

Sprowls is only 35, but has already served as assistant state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco counties. The University of South Florida graduate proposed the bill to consolidate the accreditations of the main USF campus in Tampa and the USF St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses under one umbrella.

The Tampa Bay area would get another dose of power in Tallahassee, alongside the incoming Senate President,  Wilton Simpson of Pasco County.

The son of a New York police detective would be only the second House speaker from Pinellas County, following in the footsteps of Peter Rudy Wallace.

Moments after he was formally elected Tuesday, Sprowls waded into issues such as bolstering the state’s finances and addressing climate change.

And he made clear he doesn’t think much of social media and the goings-on in Washington, D.C.

Sprowls will succeed Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, after the November 2020 elections and will hold one of the most-powerful political jobs in Florida. He has long been positioned to become the next speaker, a move that was finalized Tuesday with a voice vote by House Republicans, who hold an overwhelming majority in the chamber.

Speaking to House Republicans, state leaders, family members and supporters, Sprowls outlined priorities that include addressing what he described as a “spending problem” in state government. As evidence, he said the $91 billion budget is growing faster than state reserves.

“We fund our wants at the expense of our needs,” Sprowls said. “We turn policy conversations into revenue conversations. We treat the state budget like it’s our own private charitable foundation to be used for the naming rights of buildings or programs. We can do better than this. We need to increase our reserves and create a new fund for disaster recovery. There is no excuse not to be prepared for the next storm or the next recession.”

While Sprowls followed a long line of Republican leaders in calling for spending restraint, he veered away from many members of his party in addressing the issue of climate change.

Here are his remarks to lawmakers, as prepared for delivery:

"When I sat down to write these remarks, I found myself looking at the invitation list and thinking about what it would feel like delivering this speech to all of you. Standing here, looking around this Chamber, I don’t see a sea of faces, but instead an ocean of memories. So what I’d like to do over the next hour is share some of those memories with you. I want to tell you about the family members, the friends, the colleagues, the teachers, the mentors, and the heroes who have shaped my life. I want to tell you those stories … but … you’ll be happy to know … I’m not going to do that. We don’t have the time, and this really isn’t the place. With your indulgence, though, I will simply say this: Whatever modest virtues I’ve acquired --- as a legislator, as a husband, as a father, as a man --- it is in large part due to the influence of so many of you. I know I am not the biggest guy in the room, but if I am standing tall today, it is because I have been lifted by the grace, generosity, and love of others. And for that, I am deeply, profoundly, and eternally grateful.  

I do want to tell you a story today, but not one about me. Rather it’s a tale of two worlds.

In one world, it is truly the worst of times. The people who live in this world are angry, frustrated, judgmental. They are unwilling to listen. Unable to learn. Incapable of saying the words, “I was wrong.”  It’s a world of perpetual grievance. It’s the world that exists inside our phones and on our screens. It’s the world of Twitter, Facebook, the 24-hours news cycle, newspaper editorial pages and opinion writers. It’s the world of political news junkies and social media addicts; a world filled with people mainlining apocalyptic rage. And like junkies and addicts on a high, they are lost in their own fantasy worlds; trapped inside ideological prisons of their own creation. A world where they act intolerant in the name of tolerance and promote venom in the name of virtue. A world where feelings matter more than facts and truth is routinely trampled by self-righteous mobs. A world with constant interaction that somehow produces feelings of profound isolation and loneliness. 

But there’s another world. It’s the place that exists when we put down our phones and step outside our front doors. It’s the world we experience in our communities, in our neighborhoods, in our churches. In this world, people don’t spend their time spewing an endless stream of words, they spend their time doing things. This is a world filled with work and purpose. Where people fight for a better life for themselves and their families.

I am not naïve enough to say it is the “best of times” in this real world.  The world we live in has plenty of intractable problems.  But what’s important is that in this world we can still recognize those problems.  We are appalled by violence, lash out against injustice, and when faced with tragic circumstances, strive to bring light into the darkness.

Contrast that with this other world, where there are no basic norms of conduct and where smugness is the language of choice.

I don’t bring this up just to bash social media or the clickbait-obsessed media but to talk about what these two worlds mean for the work we do here in this Chamber.

Let me tell you a tale of another two worlds. 

In the worst of times, there’s Washington D.C.  A place that lives inside the centrifuge of the virtual world.  Where every piece of minutiae is dissected, analyzed, and recycled by talking heads with the rabid fanaticism of grammarians arguing over the placement of a comma. There are few sights more telling or more depressing than a Congressional hearing, where Representatives and Senators go not to listen, not to learn, but to hear themselves talk.  The unfortunate erosion of our Constitution has removed most of the checks on Federal power.  Yet despite near unlimited authority, the Federal government seems incapable of real action; unable to solve real problems; unwilling to make real reforms.  The system has become an immovable object, and the people who populate Washington D.C. have turned out to be a very resistible force.  Everyone is too busy talking, practicing for a future hosting gig on Fox or MSNBC, to notice as our nation’s capital sinks deeper and deeper into the swamp.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Tallahassee.  Maybe it’s the part-time nature of our Legislature.  Maybe it’s term limits.  Maybe it’s the length of our Sessions.  Whatever the reason, in Tallahassee actions matter more than words.   Here, a single legislator with a big idea; someone who is willing to put in the work; someone who is willing to listen, learn, and build consensus; can transform how our state government works.  In my time in the Legislature, we’ve reinvented economic development, dramatically expanded choice in our K-12 system, and toppled health care barriers that once seemed insurmountable. 

In those accomplishments and so many others, we’ve stood on the shoulders of those who came before, whether they were towering political figures like Governor Jeb Bush, who led the first wave of conservative reform in Florida, or unheralded individual legislators who left their mark on our state.  That’s especially true of this body and our House Republican majority.  When we are at our best, we stand at the epicenter of reform.  We have proven that we can be brave in face of terrible crises and bold in pursuit of a better future of our state.

And the results are apparent all around us.  In measures of fiscal stability, Florida consistently ranks among the top 3 states.  Our public university system has been ranked #1 for the last 3 years.  Our traditional infrastructure has been ranked as the best in the country.  Our education system has been ranked 4th in the nation for K-12 student achievement.  And while other states are driving away citizens with their tax policies, Florida leads in the nation in domestic migration.

You wouldn’t know any of that if you spend your time on social media or reading newspaper editorial pages.  But if you step out into the sunshine, you know that Florida is a destination --- a place where people want to be; a place where they want to visit, want to work, and want to live.

We should be proud of those accomplishments, but we cannot rest on our laurels. And we cannot, like the dysfunctional virtual world, cast blame on others while ignoring our own failings.  Members, we have a spending problem.  Our budget is growing faster than our reserves.  We start new university construction projects without finishing old ones.  We fund our wants at the expense of our needs.  We turn policy conversations into revenue conversations.  We treat the state budget like it is our own private charitable foundation to be used to buy the naming rights to buildings and programs.  Members, we need to do better.  We need to increase our reserves and create a new fund for disaster recovery.  There is no excuse not to be prepared for the next storm or the next recession.

We think of Florida as a low tax state and, comparatively speaking, that’s true.  But much of the taxation in our state has been hidden inside taxing districts.   If you laid out on a chart all the state and local taxes, fees, and assessments and all the boards and districts with authority to spend that money, it would produce a web so complicated that you would think we were a Federal government agency.  This House over the last few years has taken the lead in exposing misuse of tax dollars.  We’ve shown what happens when we allow groups --- like the Career Source agency in my home county of Pinellas --- to operate with impunity.  But there’s much more to do.  We need an Inspector General with the power to investigate these organizations, recover misspent funds, impose civil fines, and, in extreme cases, refer matters to our State Attorneys for criminal prosecution.

Tax dollars don’t belong to any district or board.  They don’t belong to local governments.  And they certainly don’t belong to us.  That money belongs to the hard-working people of our state, and we have a moral obligation to handle it with respect.  Accountability matters.

Florida’s prosperity is inextricably tied to our environment.  Our beaches and our water are among our state’s chief economic assets, and as the trustees of our state, we have an obligation to protect and enhance those assets.  We need to stop being afraid of words like “climate change” and “sea level rise.”  Frankly, we do this too often as conservatives.  We confuse acknowledging a problem with acquiescing to a particular solution.  We can recognize that our environment matters without banning our air conditioners or closing our supermarkets or scrapping our cars.  Floridians aren’t interested in the utter nonsense of the Green New Deal.  But they do want good jobs, clean water, and ample, sandy beaches.  They want to know we are working on practical ways to mitigate the risk of flooding in our coastal communities.  We don’t live in Iowa.  We live on a peninsula.  We cannot afford to put our head in the sand and hope the beach doesn’t disappear under a permanent rising tide.

We shouldn’t be afraid of facts.

In the years since Roe v. Wade, medical science has pushed the point of fetal viability earlier and earlier, and technology can now detect signs of life we could not have imagined 50 years ago.  And yet despite all this scientific data, we have candidates running for President of the United States --- driven by the activism of that virtual world --- who have embraced the horrific idea that an elective abortion should be allowed at any point up until the moment of delivery.  While I don’t think Robert Francis O’Rourke or Mayor Pete have a chance of becoming President, just in case, these advocates for late-term abortions should know that here in the state of Florida, we don’t kill babies.  Life matters.

We have done so much in K-12 education, but there remains more to do.  We must continue to experiment, to blaze new trails, to push against the status quo.  But in doing so, we cannot fall into the same sinkhole that long ago swallowed our Democratic colleagues --- the belief that government can single-handedly solve every problem.  A robust, world-class K-12 system is a game-changing goal, but we should not pretend that a great school cures every social ill. 

A great school can’t replace an absent father.  Nationally, 23.6% of children live without a father in the home.  Children without fathers are 4 times at greater risk of poverty, 7 times at greater risk for teen pregnancy, and more likely to have behavioral problems, abuse substances, and commit crimes.

This fatherhood crisis has in turn produced a crisis among boys.  Our sons are falling behind in school and dropping out of the workforce.  Non-college educated young men are at the greatest risk of being left behind by innovations in technology.  Boys aged 15-19 are three times more likely to commit suicide than girls.  Between the ages of 20 and 24, that number grows to 4 ½ times.

Of course, if you believe Twitter, the problem with fathers and sons is that they are men.  Now I spent my formative professional years a prosecutor.  I prosecuted murderers and rapists.  I am well-acquainted with the evil that men can do.  But you see in everything – in every race, ethnicity, religion, occupation, and, yes, gender --- there will always be those outliers who choose to violate our social contract.  But they are the aberrations; the exceptions. And that has always been the case.  But the nature of our new virtual world allows these outliers to be magnified and their behavior used to simply dismiss out-of-hand the specific challenges faced by adolescent boys.

Single mothers, single fathers or two-parent homes.  Boys or girls.  We have far too many families struggling to navigate a wide range of social and economic challenges.   We need to do a better job recruiting and, more importantly, retaining, high-quality case workers and give our child welfare agencies greater flexibility.  We should encourage adoption and provide greater support for foster kids as they transition to adulthood.  We must strengthen our mental health networks and continue the fight against opioid abuse.  We need to look at adapting vocational and technical training to changing workforce needs.  We must ensure that our social welfare programs are designed not as safety nets, but as trampolines – helping those who fall into their orbit find their way back up.  But government cannot address these problems alone.  We need to encourage individuals to accept personal responsibility for their own futures.  We need to empower the vast network of community organizations, charitable organizations, and churches; the little leagues and youth groups; all of whom are eager to help.  And we need to ensure that when government does act, we do so more efficiently, more creatively, and more effectively. 

Now those outliers that I mentioned earlier --- those people who step outside lawful behavior --- those predators, sexual or otherwise, who seek to victimize those less powerful – they should be shoved into the light of day.  We must continue our war on human trafficking, ensure that we never again develop a backlog of DNA rape kits, and make it clear that sexual harassment is never acceptable.

The problem with raising issues in a speech like this is you can’t say everything you want to say. 

I haven’t talked about the need to deregulate businesses and professions or the importance of respecting intellectual diversity in our universities.

I haven’t dived deep into health care, even though continuing forward with health care reforms needs to be at the forefront of this House’s work in the years ahead.  I would talk more about it, but Speaker Oliva is far more eloquent on that subject, and the trick to speeches like this is to avoid unflattering comparisons. 

I haven’t talked about how we need to build on this House’s radical data transparency initiatives in health care and criminal justice, and the need to open new data sources across government.  I’d really like to talk a lot more about data transparency initiatives because I find the topic endlessly fascinating.  But I’ve been informed that no one else does and another trick to speeches like this is not to put your audience to sleep. 

And, Members, I may not have mentioned the policy that is most important to you.  Don’t read into that oversight.  Please know that the issues that are important to you are important to me.  I don’t stand up here today to tell you that I know all the questions or that I have all the answers.  I know I don’t.  And I’m not here today to tell you what our agenda will be.  That is something we’ll figure out together.   But I am here today to say this --- what we do together needs to matter. 

Earlier I talked about a tale of two worlds.  A world of words and a world of actions.  In making that distinction, I am not suggesting that words aren’t important.  Language has incredible power.  We are a nation founded on words --- We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.  These are words so powerful that when we, as a nation, failed to live up to their promise they rang in our ears taunting us.  But those were words of truth, purpose, and meaning that presaged action; a clarion call in the darkness.

They are a far cry for the self-aggrandizing, tribal speak that populates Washington D.C., and, if we’re being honest, not just Washington D.C.  We are seeing it more and more in this Chamber.  

It has infected too many of our colleagues, some of whom have seemingly abandoned any effort to influence legislation, replacing policymaking with pantomime; more concerned with the content of a tweet than the content of a bill.  They treat the Legislature like a debating society; spending hours on the Floor and in committee asking questions they already know the answers to and repeating the same points over and over in debate.  They play to the cameras without grappling with the age-old, existential question – if you give a speech on the Florida Channel and no one is watching, did you actually make a point?

And, of course, they are free to make that choice.  But the rest of us, we have work to do. 

We are the majority party of the government of the third largest state in the greatest nation on Earth.  If we are not awed and humbled by that responsibility, then we have lost perspective.  Members, I am asking us to put down our phones and step away from our screens.  I am asking us to stop worrying about what 21 people on Twitter think and focus on what the 21 million people of Florida need.  I am asking us to worry less about who liked our Facebook posts and worry more about whether we are earning the respect of our colleagues. I am asking us to roll up our sleeves, identify real problems, get curious, and dream about big ideas.   I am asking us to be brave.

In my time as a prosecutor, I saw the seedier side of humanity.  But I also got to see something else.  I got to see real heroes.  I saw the sacrifice of police officers like Charlie Kondek who gave his life protecting others.  I saw victims of terrible crimes who were willing to step up onto the witness stand and testify in the face of threats and intimidation.  There are so many people around this state, people with so much less power than we have, who sacrifice so much more than we do, so they can improve the lives of their fellow Floridians.  We owe it to them to do our very best.

And I know our best will be good enough.  Because we know what we can accomplish together as a Republican majority.  Because we trust in the leadership of our great Governor, Ron DeSantis.  Because we understand that our vision for Florida is better than the vision offered by our opponents.  We believe taxes should be low and economic freedom high.  We believe families should be able to make their own choices about their education and health care.  We believe people should be able to find good jobs, live on safe streets, and drink clean water.  We believe society matters more than government.  We believe actions matter more than words.  And Members, most of all, I believe in you.  I believe that the next great idea that will shape our state will come from someone sitting in this room. 

But to make that idea a reality, we need to stand together.  We need to keep pushing.  We need to keep reforming.  If we do that; if we keep our feet firmly planted in the real world, then maybe one day the things in our state that are bad will be better; the things that are good will be great; and the things that are great will be astonishing.  So that in this world, in this state, our children and their children will see the legacy of the choices we make, and they will be able to say, truly, that they are living in the best of times.

Thank you.  God bless all of you and God bless the great state of Florida."

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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