Finally. For just the second time in history, a Pinellas County state lawmaker will be speaker of the Florida House. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, was formally designated Tuesday as the next speaker by his fellow Republicans and will preside over the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions. That should be an opportunity for Pinellas and the entire Tampa Bay region to receive attention in the state capital that too often has been more focused on other areas of the state.
Sprowls, 35, is a former prosecutor who has a lawyer’s gift for persuasive oral arguments and the sharp elbows of a rising political star. He has focused on issues ranging from criminal justice reform to transparency in health care costs, and he prefers to work behind the scenes. Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, said in a nominating speech that his friend leads by example, helping his colleagues succeed and allowing others to take the credit. Left unsaid but well-understood: Don’t cross him.
Tampa Bay is particularly fortunate because Sprowls will be House speaker while Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, will be Senate president. With both of the Legislature’s presiding officers from this region, the area’s business leaders and elected officials should aim high and set some priorities. For decades, Tampa Bay has been short-changed in Tallahassee while South Florida or the Orlando area have benefited by speaking with one voice on a common goal.
Here are three areas ripe for attention by the Tampa Bay community and by the next House speaker and Senate president:
-- Transportation. This region still has no viable regional transit. South Florida does. Central Florida does. It should be Tampa Bay’s turn. The mode of transportation, whether it’s light rail or rapid bus lines or some new technology, can be debated. But the desperate need for an efficient, reliable transit system for Tampa Bay is obvious to commuters, business leaders and tourists. It will take a significant state investment to make it happen.
-- The University of South Florida. For too long, USF has been in the shadows in Tallahassee compared to the University of Florida, Florida State University and at times the University of Central Florida. USF has gotten millions for its new downtown Tampa medical school now under construction, and it joins UF and FSU as one of the state’s three preeminent universities. Yet when there was no new money for preeminence this year, UF and FSU shared a different pot of money and USF was left out. Sprowls, a USF graduate, should level the playing field.
-- Resilience. As Sprowls told his Republican colleagues Tuesday, "We need to stop being afraid of words like ‘climate change’ and ‘sea level rise.’ '’ Tampa Bay is considered among the most vulnerable areas in the nation for rising tides and severe hurricanes. Local governments don’t have the financial resources to make the necessary improvements to public facilities, strengthen building codes and better prepare low-lying neighborhoods. It’s time for the state to play a bigger, more aggressive role.
There will be other challenges. Sprowls was the driving force behind the 2018 law forcing the consolidation of USF St. Petersburg with the main research university, and he will have to remain engaged because the university’s preliminary plans short-change USFSP. State revenue is expected to be significantly less than once expected while he is speaker because of a cooling economy. And Sprowls will be in charge when lawmakers redraw congressional and legislative districts in 2022, which is never easy.
Those are issues for another day. Today, Sprowls deserves credit as a hard-working lawmaker who quickly rose through the ranks with a blend of pleasant personality, policy expertise and political acumen. Now he is formally designated as the next speaker of the Florida House, and that should benefit Pinellas County and the entire Tampa Bay region.
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