A diverse group of leaders from across the state are gathering this week to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing Florida, developing a series of policy recommendations for the next governor and legislature.
The Florida Influencers, a panel of the state’s most prominent figures from a wide array of backgrounds gathered for the Florida Priorities Summit at the University of Miami Tuesday to find consensus in five of the areas most critical to Florida’s future: education, transportation, guns, environment and health care. The Influencer’s proposals will be delivered in a report to Gov. Rick Scott’s successor and the new class of lawmakers.
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“We have to get beyond the election results, whatever they may be, and get down to business,” said Maria Alonso, the president and CEO of the United Way of Miami-Dade. “Let’s just get beyond the politics and find ways to work together. I hate the divisiveness that we’re seeing in everything. I hope we find a way outside of that.”
The summit marks the culmination of the Florida Influencer Series for 2018 — a project by the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and Bradenton Herald. Over the past six months, the Influencers shared their ideas on how to address the most important issues facing the state and responded to questions from readers.
Their recommendations will be discussed at the Summit, which will feature panel discussions on all five of the policy areas, as well as conversations about what this year’s election results mean for 2020 and beyond, and lessons of the 2000 presidential recount for this year’s electoral controversies. Speakers include musician Luther Campbell, Tracy Wilson Mourning, the founder of the Honey Shine Mentoring Program, and former Ambassador Nancy Brinker, the founder of Susan G. Komen.
“In this hyper-partisan age where harsh words fly across Twitter by the second, we wanted to create a project that would allow us all to slow down a bit, gather some of the smartest people from across our state, get input from our readers, have a very thoughtful discussion about the issues of the day, and more importantly, come up with solutions to address these critical problems,” said Alexandra Villoch, president and publisher of the Miami Herald Media Company.
Each of Tuesday’s panels featured around a half-dozen different Influencers, one of whom served as the chairman.
The working group that handled education, the issue Influencers ranked as the most important, stressed that funding must be viewed as an investment rather than an expense. They said that funding provided through the lottery and local measures should add to the state’s education fund rather than supplant other sources of money, and that additional revenue should be used to raise teacher pay.
“The combined insights were much better than any one person’s insights. It gave me some things to think about that I hadn’t thought about before because people came from different perspectives,” said Steve Zack, a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner, the Miami law firm. “Usually you end up in a silo where you talk to people who are like you and you don’t really learn about other people’s views.”
For health care, the Influencer group said lawmakers must focus on reducing cost and increasing access. To do that, they recommended expanding Medicaid and increase and more effectively leverage a funding pool for low-income Floridians. Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature have turned down federal money to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, leaving 850,000 Floridians without health insurance.
“We’re concerned that are legislators are averse to certain words,” said Victoria Kasdan, the executive director of We Care Manatee. “They hear certain words and they just shut down.”
After a lively back-and-forth among the Influencers, the environmental panel was able to find areas of agreement. The group’s members said that lawmakers should commit to making science-based decisions, even if they are tough to swallow, and prioritize water management and restoration of the Everglades.
“We’ve got a really diverse group of folks and the conversation has been vibrant as a result. But I think folks are pleasantly surprised by how much common ground there really is,” said Julie Wraithmell, the executive director of Audubon Florida. “These are the kind of hard conversations we need to have as a state if we’re ever going to really tackle these challenges that we’re facing.”
Another group dove into infrastructure and transportation issues. The Influencers said the state must be more creative in encouraging Floridians to use mass transportation options while continuing to invest in additional transit development. They also suggested a toll-revenue sharing system to pay for improvements.
“Transportation is one of those issues that you can coalesce around because people aren’t going to come out and say, ‘I don’t want good transportation,” said Chris Caines, executive director of the Miami Urban Future Institute at Florida International University. “Especially in a time of extreme polarization, transportation and infrastructure feels like something we can rally around.”
And on guns, the Influencers said lawmakers should require background checks for all firearm sales, as well as develop more comprehensive databases to strengthen those checks. They also said the Stand Your Ground law should be reformed so that cases where immunity is granted for acting in self-defense can still be investigated.
“Every now and then we disagree vehemently, but for the most part we see a path forward that we can agree on,” said Rhea Law, the chair of the Florida offices of the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. “Now we need to figure out how to sell that.”