Now in its second year, the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and the Bradenton Herald are launching a discussion about the important issues facing the state of Florida. We’ve assembled a panel of 50 influential Floridians from a variety of industries and perspectives who will offer their views through the end of the year. Meet our Influencers and see how they responded to our initial question:

As the Florida Legislature meets for its annual session, please share what you think is the top issue facing Florida and some possible solutions state leaders should be exploring to address that problem.

Joseph Adler

Joseph Adler

Producing Artistic Director, GableStage

One of the most important issues facing the state Legislature is to restore the funding of the arts that has been cut dramatically over the past few years. We are now 48th in the country when it comes to supporting the arts – we used to be among the top five states taking care of its artistic institutions. The state of Florida has historically understood the importance of the arts and it’s unfortunate we have fallen so far. We are blessed to live in a county the provides more support than any other county commission in Florida, and now it’s time for the state to step up. Every arts group in Florida is hurting.

Karen Arnold

Karen Arnold

Chief Operating Officer, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce

As the diversity of our nation, state, and region continues to increase, there must be a heightened focus on ensuring that all business owners have the ability to overcome barriers to grow their business. These barriers often include limited access to capital, key decision makers and information. Minority businesses are also impacted by core issues such as access to education, an acceptable transit system and affordable housing. Recent data shows that while minority businesses make up 49 percent of Hillsborough County’s business population they only contribute 5 percent to the total revenue in the county. These statistics are also reflective of our region and the state of Florida. Economic inclusion begins with industry experts collaborating with minority business owners who are looking to develop strategic and results-driven solutions specific to their unique business needs. Together, the goal is to be leaders in job creation, business prosperity and economic inclusion. Economic vitality must be a priority for all businesses.

Eddy Arriola

Eddy Arriola

CEO, Apollo Bank

A top issue is making resiliency a larger part of the conversation around climate change. South Florida is largely considered to be ground zero for climate change when the reality is that our region has been designed to live and adapt with our climate from the very beginning. South Florida was built on a swamp and we have some of the world’s strongest building and planning codes as a result. Our region should be viewed as the model for other major areas, such as New York City and the entire east coast, that are more vulnerable to the impact of hurricanes and sea level rise. The top issue for our legislature should be on allocating resources and continuing to invest in the infrastructure projects and technology needed for our region to continue to lead the pack in terms of resiliency.

Josh  Boloña

Josh Boloña

Student Body President, University of Central Florida

Every year the state must find solutions on how to make our higher education system better. Ensuring that quality and access is always improving will make our state successful in the long term. Increasing the number of students that graduate debt-free, incentivizing universities to create programs for jobs of the future, and our bright futures are all topics that the legislature should look to improve. Some solutions could come from expanding need-based aid to not only decrease the debt of students, but to increase access to all Floridians. Creating a pipeline from high schools to colleges and ultimately the workforce will make our state’s success much more sustainable.

Leigh-Ann Buchanan

Leigh-Ann Buchanan

Executive Director, Venture Cafe Miami

Florida’s greatest challenge is bridging the fissures of opportunity that are endemic to our state. These opportunity gaps manifest in part in the form of widespread disparities in educational attainment and inaccessible pathways to economic mobility. Legislators must understand the unit economics of impact relative to the policies they seek to implement. Zip code level data matters because it paints a more accurate picture of the localized symptoms to Florida’s accelerated movement away from shared prosperity. Indeed, we can uncover the innovative and novel solutions to these challenges only if we measure statewide the comparative levels of community investment and related outcomes through a lens of inclusion.

Yolanda Cash Jackson

Yolanda Cash Jackson

Shareholder, Becker Poliakoff

Amendment 4 will provide the teachable moment in this year’s legislative session. Watch as state lawmakers devise regulations that may put limits on what many believed was a straightforward change to the Florida Constitution. How this will affect a felon’s right to vote is anyone’s guess. Florida is one of the few states that gives its voters direct democracy through the citizens’ initiative, a grueling campaign of collecting petition signatures to put an issue on the ballot. Voters must then approve the initiative by 60 percent for it to pass. The initiative is often used to enact progressive policies that the Legislature opposes. The class size, fair districts and medical marijuana amendments were just a few of the initiatives that found popular support after going nowhere in the Legislature. Last November, voters approved Amendment 4 to restore voting rights to felons. It passed by a 64 percent margin. However, lawmakers will get the final word because they are responsible for writing the laws to implement new amendments. Expect some fireworks. What many thought was a done deal becomes ‘Round 2’ in the struggle to restore rights Florida’s 4 million disenfranchised voters.

Carmen Castillo

Carmen Castillo

President & CEO, SDI International Corp.

We have a new governor – the youngest in a century – and the first Latina elected to Lt. Governor, who will have to work to unify all parts of the government to address critical issues like the environment and our waterways after the devastation caused by algae and red tide, as well as the quality of our water; expansion of our roadways; the industries that were severely impacted by Hurricane Michael, like agribusiness, seafood, and timber; healthcare; and programs that promote increased access to quality education for children and adults in our state.

Barron Channer

Barron Channer

CEO, Woodwater Group

Economic inequality is Florida’s most pressing issue. It robs our community of the full talents and engagement of a large portion of our residents. Our ability to solve other major issues is diminished by not having all hands and minds at the table. Problems manifest in the form of lower educational attainment, poorer levels of health, greater exposure to violence and uneven community development. The societal impacts include increased direct costs for community administration and productivity loss that will never be recaptured. We are all being impacted regardless of political ideology or personal beliefs regarding the issue. I am optimistic about our ability to create change with a combination of strategies. Reorient education to equip all kids with skills needed for the third industrial revolution. Fund more training programs to funnel those who are unemployed and underemployed to sustainable local industries. Aggressively pursue public-private partnerships for integrating affordable and workforce housing in middle class and wealthier communities. Direct more economic development resources towards capitalizing small, minority and women-owned businesses. Enact policies to address any race and/or gender disparities in government procurement. Increase access to affordable healthcare and life insurance which reduce the negative financial impacts of life-altering events.

Xavier Cortada

Xavier Cortada

Professor of Practice: Art, University of Miami

Two years ago, Florida was among the nation’s top 10 state art funders. Last session, legislators slashed our state’s arts budget by 90 percent. Florida now ranks second from the bottom. Florida’s arts grants are a product of a nationally respected peer-reviewed grants process that ensures that arts funding is based on merit (and not political influence). Better yet, every dollar of public support for the arts leverages $39 of other funding. State arts funding is a great investment. With a $4.7 billion annual impact in the state of Florida, the arts are a full-fledged force in our economy. The arts employ more than 247,000 Floridians – they are dancers and musicians but also security guards and carpenters. Cultural programming attracts more than 70 million attendees a year to Florida’s theaters, museums and festivals. State sales tax collections increase with attendees’ purchasing everything from paintings and sculpture to meals and clothing from local businesses. It is in the State’s self-interest to restore its investment in the arts. Doing so will produce millions more in matching money, support hundreds of thousands of jobs, and give our state the competitive edge for business and tourism.

Terry DeCarlo

Terry DeCarlo

LGBT Activist

There are several issues that need to take priority as the legislature prepares for session, one that I continue to yell about is gun control. We are losing our younger generation, the generation that is supposed to take care of us in our old age. HB175 ,which was filed on Jan. 7, would have basically removed all the provisions that were put in place after the Stoneman Douglas tragedy; luckily the bill was withdrawn on Feb. 25. This shows that certain legislators are still hellbent on keeping certain firearms in the hands of people who should not have them. On Jan. 31, SB 764 was filed, which would allow family members to petition the courts to take away guns of a person deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. It would also require the state to collect data on the “red flag” petitions that have been filed by law enforcement agencies across the state, and keep weapons in a locked container. We need to hold legislators feet to the fire on this issue to make sure they keep heading in the right direction for the state.

Frank  DiBello

Frank DiBello

President & CEO, Space Florida

Florida is a dynamic and rapidly changing state that is not only continuing its trend as a highly desirable choice for millions of citizens making quality of life decisions about where to live, but is also emerging as a premier location for next generation high-technology and manufacturing companies seeking an ideal environment to locate and thrive in. Multiple generations of political and civic leadership have worked hard to establish a strong business ecosystem that supports businesses that establish themselves and operate here. Nowhere is this more visible today than on our space, digital domain and aerospace industries. Companies from all over the world and from other states have recognized that Florida is the place for their future and the state is experiencing unprecedented growth in these sectors! Today, this enviable growth and renaissance of high-tech interest in Florida has produced inevitable growing pains and stress on our infrastructure, education and workforce supply chain. And while the need for our institutions to stimulate a greater interest and pursuit of STEM skills in our youth is a high priority, there is an even greater challenge and opportunity for Florida in ensuring the availability of advanced manufacturing “touch” skills in our workforce. Florida’s ability to capture the rewards of the unprecedented interest in our state, by these critical high-tech industries of the future, depends on the ability and success of our political, industry and educational leaders, in partnership to meet this need for both degreed and non-degreed advanced manufacturing skills for the future! It is a challenge — and must be as high priority as significant to our economic future as clean water!

Albert Dotson

Albert Dotson

Managing Partner, Bilzin Sumberg

The great news is that our legislature is capable of focusing on more than one issue. Thus, I believe that they must (a) summon the political courage and humanity to tackle child safety by passing firearm safety legislation, (b) create a public education system that demands excellence and prepares students for the workforce, © reverse the horrific trend of using Stand Your Ground laws as excuses for killing innocent Floridians by passing legislation that creates a disincentives for abuses of this law, and (d) redirect economic development efforts to support responsible growth of businesses and industries by passing legislation that authorizes investments that will yield future-focusing jobs for our residents.

Carol Dover

Carol Dover

President & CEO, Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association

There is no part of Florida that is untouched by water. Whether it’s our beautiful coastlines, springs and lakes, or our aquifer, every single community in the state is in some way dependent on water. Without long-term solutions to issues like toxic algae and red tide, our businesses, our economy and our communities will suffer. With Tourism being the economic engine of Florida, it is critical that we find long term solutions to our water issues.

Eric Eikenberg

Eric Eikenberg

CEO, The Everglades Foundation

Florida faces a water crisis that jeopardizes our multi-billion dollar tourism, hospitality and recreational fishing business and is having a grave impact on coastal real estate. For three of the last six years, our coastal estuaries have sustained massive outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae. To make matters worse, red tide last year devastated all three of Florida’s coastlines, stretching all the way from Miami to the Gulf Coast as far north as Big Bend. For 20 years, scientists and policy-makers have agreed on the cause and have urged a solution: construction of a massive water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that can alleviate the need for algae-causing discharges of Lake Okeechobee water while storing and purifying badly needed fresh water that can relieve the Everglades and Florida Bay during the dry season. Two years ago, the Legislature approved funding for the Everglades Reservoir, and Governor DeSantis’ budget request sets aside ample funding to complete the project in four or five years — not in 10 or 20. Nothing is more important to Florida’s economy and environment than full funding of the Governor’s budget request — and, on the federal level, appropriations to fund the federal share.

Wifredo Ferrer

Wifredo Ferrer

Executive Partner, Holland & Knight Miami Office

Quality healthcare is unaffordable for far too many Floridians. In a study last year by the nonpartisan and nonprofit Commonwealth Fund, Florida ranked 48th in healthcare access across the 50 states. Fortunately, I believe the legislature recognizes this serious problem and is working to develop creative ideas to bring costs down and increase access. Price transparency and expanding Medicaid would be a good start for some immediate effective solutions. And Florida should prioritize support for the Critical Care Fund, which provides additional funding to hospitals serving vulnerable Medicaid patients. The Critical Care Fund also helps cover the costs for the highly specialized care they need. And tort reform would help combat rising “invisible” fees (that contribute to higher healthcare costs) and provide strong protection to our dedicated healthcare professionals. Our system must better protect the most vulnerable Floridians like seniors and children and ensure that healthcare costs don’t bankrupt hard-working Florida families.

Julio Frenk

Julio Frenk

President, University of MIami

The top issue facing Florida is the need to equip our talented residents with the capabilities to succeed in today’s rapidly changing workforce. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average employee holds nearly a dozen different positions during the 30 years following high school. Someone with a baccalaureate degree earns, on average, 84 percent more over a lifetime than someone with a high school diploma. Yet, the road to a degree is not always linear and, given the pace of changes in technology, a degree is rarely the final destination. As colleges and universities find new ways to help Floridians come to campus to sharpen their competencies—at the University of Miami, this is part of what we call “Education for Life”—the state must prioritize innovation in educational technologies, pedagogical approaches, financial support to students, and assessment of outcomes to ensure learners of all ages have the ability to meet future demands. Access to relevant educational programs throughout evolving careers provides a passport to prosperity. This investment in our people will yield the innovators, professionals, and civic leaders who will grow our state’s economy by attracting more business, thereby setting future generations of Floridians up for success.

Luis Garcia

Luis Garcia

CEO, Adonel Concrete

The images aired throughout the state and nationally showing the algae-choked waters of Lake Okeechobee and the deadly red tide along the Gulf Coast illustrate the serious issues confronting Florida’s environment. The beautiful waterways across Florida were significantly impacted in so many ways — whether killing our state’s most precious aquatic life, fouling the air or devastating the tourism business. And sadly, there’s more to address with Florida’s environment. South Florida coastal communities, including parts of Miami and Miami Beach, continuously experience flooding during high tides from sea-level rise, which threatens salt-water intrusion in our water supplies. Some local municipalities are attacking that issue on their own, but there needs to be broader discussion on a statewide level. Florida’s greatest asset is its environment. Longtime residents such as myself take pride in our state’s magnificent beaches, rivers and springs. But in recent years, funding for a number of effective programs designed to address environmental issues have been slashed or eliminated. The state’s growth management agency was disassembled and efforts to address water quality seem to be less of a priority.

Patrick Goddard

Patrick Goddard

President, Virgin Trains

Two of the top issues in Florida are protecting our environment and ensuring our state’s infrastructure allows for smart growth and global competitiveness. These two issues while distinct, go hand-in-hand. Governor DeSantis is off to a great start making sure Florida is on a path towards a more sustainable future. The Legislature should support him by prioritizing Everglades restoration and water quality but we also need to make transportation options that reduce carbon emissions more appealing. Government can’t accomplish this on its own. Private sector solutions should be encouraged and private investment in Florida should be welcomed.

Debbie Harvey

Debbie Harvey

President and COO, Ron Jon Surf Shop

Our legislators must have a vision as well as a strategic plan to deal with Florida’s growth both — short term and long term. Our state continues to add permanent residents at a strong pace and is now the third largest state in the nation. In addition, those qualities that make Florida so attractive to residents have also resulted in continued growth of our tourism industry. In 2018, Florida welcomed a record 120 million visitors. While many of us consider growth a positive, growth without a plan to meet future needs will result in a reduction on the quality of life of Floridians. Our legislators need to address the stress that this growth will cause on our infrastructure both now and for the coming years. This is not an easy task, but we just can’t wait until we are at a breaking point to address. Our infrastructure is already severely challenged in many areas. From our roads, which are outdated even as they are improved, to our lack of quality mass transportation, we need a plan to get Floridians to their jobs as well as get our visitors to their destinations. We cannot wait for gridlock. Our natural resources are strained. New development needs to be challenged to include conservation of natural resources. Water quality needs improved now, this past year’s red tide and algae blooms cannot be ignored. Future water needs must be addressed with science based solutions that will keep up with our growth. The growth in population and visitors will also fuel a growth in services needed. Our leaders need to have a focus on what our future workforce needs will be and how we will meet those. We are already experiencing worker shortages in many professions including critical areas such as healthcare. We can’t be afraid to change our educational system to line up with future needs and to use technology to fill in the gaps. For Florida to flourish, we will need bold leaders who take on these challenges now, rather than pushing them into the future.

Stacy Hyde

Stacy Hyde

CEO, Broward House

Affordable housing is the foundation in addressing many issues throughout the State of Florida. As we strive to improve education, healthcare and mental health for our citizens and communities, our initiatives will be lost on those who are not in stable, safe housing. Florida has the third-highest homeless rate in the United States. The state must participate in creating more affordable and supportive housing with attention to evidence based models, including Housing First and Rapid-Rehousing models with strong wrap around services. A primary step is to protect Affordable Housing Trust fund monies, ensuring 100 percent is used for housing resources. The sweeping of this money to other priorities must stop, as $2 billion of Sadowski Trust Fund dollars has been swept since the Trust Fund’s inception in 1992. Support for the State Housing Tax Credits are encouraged to funding workforce housing development, which has demonstrated successful in other states. The Workforce Housing initiative supports affordable housing for Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed Citizens (ALICE). If our residents do not have the foundation of a safe and stable place to live, many other initiatives will not succeed.

Fedrick Ingram

Fedrick Ingram

President, Florida Education Association

After 20 years of misguided policies that have shortchanged neighborhood public schools while prioritizing support for religious and private schools and for-profit charters, we are clearly at a crisis point. Too many of our children — Florida’s future — are not receiving the educational opportunities they deserve. We believe that the path to providing a world-class education for all of our students lies in funding programs to ensure their success, investing in teacher retention and recruitment, and in properly funding neighborhood public schools and our institutions of higher education. The current budget for public education is woefully inadequate. Adjusted for inflation, we spend over $1,000 less per student today than before the Great Recession. Nationally, this state’s education spending ranks near the bottom. And we are facing an unprecedented teacher shortage. The Florida Department of Education predicts districts could have more than 10,000 teacher vacancies next school year. Taxpayers have shown their support for better funding for public schools. In the 2018 elections, local voters in 19 counties chose to tax themselves in order to pay our educators as professionals and invest in neighborhood public schools. We can do better. The Legislature should follow the example of voters and increase funding for neighborhood public schools and for our colleges and universities.

Saif Ishoof

Saif Ishoof

Vice President/Engagement, Florida International University

The top issue facing our state revolves around talent. For Florida to reach its full economic potential, we have to maximize the development and retention of our talent. One element of that process includes scaling investments in our K-12, community college and university systems to meet the growing demands of industry. We also need to deepen the collaborations between industry and academic partners to ensure that students/learners are equipped with experiential learning opportunities earlier in their academic journey – this can come in the form of co-ops, paid internships and apprenticeships. Here in South Florida, we’ve already begun that work through the creation of the Talent Development Network (TDN) which is a philanthropy supported portal born from the Miami-Dade Beacon Council’s One Community One Goal initiative. TDN connects students from seven different academic institutions with paid internships offered by businesses here in our region. We know from data that a student who does a paid internship has a 60+% increased likelihood of getting a full-time job. We also must support the ability of our talent to launch and build their startups in our state and as leaders we must create fertile innovation ecosystems with mentors, risk capital and other support resources. Here at the institution I work at, our FIU Office of Research & Economic Development created StartupFIU to help marshal those critical supports for entrepreneurs. As the forces of automation continue to disrupt the world of work as we know it, we must embrace that the global competitiveness of our talent base depends on our ability to blend skills and competency training with the higher order thinking provided by a college education to create the next Amazon or Tesla right here in Florida.

Jeff   Johnson

Jeff Johnson

State Director, AARP

Florida is already the grayest state in America, and our 50-plus population is on track to grow much more rapidly than the overall population by 2050, with big positive impacts to Florida’s economy. Yet in providing help to family caregivers (46th in the nation), and supporting affordable housing (3rdhighest in homelessness), Florida lags behind. AARP Florida recommends that Florida rebalance its long-term care budget so that family caregivers can more easily get help keeping their older loved ones at home and in their community, rather than seeking institutional care. While nursing homes are needed and play an important role in care, Florida ranks 43rd in the nation in providing a choice of where to receive care, where eight in 10 older Floridians want to stay. This is not only a benefit for families but for state taxpayers, since home- and community-based care can cost much less than nursing-home care. In addition, as a member of the Sadowski Coalition, AARP Florida recommends that lawmakers allow all dedicated revenues to flow into affordable housing initiatives as provided by law, rather than diverting them to other government programs as they have repeatedly done in recent years.

Ram Kancharla

Ram Kancharla

VP/Planning and Development, Port Tampa Bay

The future is up to us. In this digital era, with the economy and society woven together by big-data algorithms, user-generated content and automation, the state has an opportunity to become the world’s first Smart State, enhancing every aspect of life for Floridians. A Smart State would step beyond connected, smart cities. Significant advancements are being made across industries, from 3D printing to autonomous vehicles to hydroponic agriculture. Having traveled outside the state and country, and experienced the widespread application of cutting-edge innovation in places like Singapore, Dubai and Israel, I see almost infinite opportunity to better use Florida’s resources statewide, by investing in and adopting transformative technologies. We must move forward. We are the world’s leaders in innovation but rank low in adoption; we must deploy technologies to transform education, health care, congestion. Panasonic’s integrated software platform for intelligent roadways, for example, anticipates quadrupled road capacity and an 80 percent reduction in traffic accidents along Colorado’s I-70. Innovative technology can address important issues like sea level rise, food safety, water conservation. It can make us safer, ending the non-stop upsizing of roadways, schools and hospitals, which has clearly not produced the desired outcomes. If Florida invested just 5 percent of its $94 billion budget in innovation, requiring every department/agency to submit an innovation plan/strategy, state assets would be used in a smarter, more efficient way. Florida should develop a center to create this Smart State, embrace tech education to stay productive, ignite and reward innovation by cities and counties, and incubate and roll out innovations to benefit Floridians.

Victoria Kasdan

Victoria Kasdan

Executive Director, We Care Manatee

Access to affordable, high quality healthcare remains a top priority in the minds of most Floridians. Our sunshine state ranks 49th on the healthcare spectrum with limited access, high cost and significant disparities that cast a dark cloud on the physical, mental and economic health of our communities. It’s time Florida lawmakers worked together, in a solutions-oriented manner focused on short and long term approaches toward reducing cost, improving quality and increasing access to health care in Florida. It’s imperative that bills be passed to reduce the number of uninsured, address barriers to care for the under insured and lessen the burden of uncompensated care on the taxpayer. Medicaid expansion using existing eligibility criteria would immediately cover an additional 300,000 Floridians at no additional cost to the state; they might also consider reallocating low income pool (LIP) funding to offer bridged subsidies for the under-insured which would cover another 400,000, and incorporating contingency waivers to minimize Florida’s risk should federal funding dry up. Other opportunities to address the healthcare issues in Florida include making better use of data analytics to quantify results, stop funding what isn’t working, maintain what is and initiate new funding community-based health care organizations, programs or services that provide measurable and meaningful outcomes, proven ROI or cost savings; and reduction in health disparities. Lives hang in the balance of our health care system. That’s why it’s important we have healthcare legislation that adequately addresses the unique needs of Floridians in an effective, yet compassionate way.

Nancy Lawther

Nancy Lawther

President, Miami-Dade Council PTA/PTSA

We must ask those who represent us in Tallahassee if they are willing to pass a budget with no new tax cuts or credits, one that invests instead, heavily and strategically, in making the Florida of the future a state where our children and grandchildren will want — and can afford — to live. Thanks to projected population growth and sea level rise, Florida’s infrastructure is likely to undergo substantial challenges. Floridians may well face gaps in affordable and accessible housing, transportation and healthcare. Those lacking specially-tailored, job-related skills may find themselves unemployed or underemployed, and industries long in the forefront of Florida’s economy may fall by the wayside. The Florida Legislature has but one mandate: to pass an annual state budget. In this endeavor, it is time for our elected representatives to take a different approach from that of recent years. They must, at a minimum, maintain — not limit arbitrarily or divert into private pockets — state and local revenues, and they must allocate such revenues equitably and with an eye to the common good. Together, we all must look beyond the bottom line, the quarterly report, or the next election. We cannot, we must not, balance the budget at the expense of future generations.

Margaret Lezcano

Margaret Lezcano

Managing Director and Head of Southeast Public Finance, UBS

The top issue facing transportation infrastructure in the state is the same issue facing most states across the country — the need to increase revenue in order to fund much needed infrastructure improvements. This is particularly relevant to a growing state like Florida. The federal gas tax has not been increased since 1993 and, thus, many states have taken matters into their own hands. Twenty-nine states have increased their gas tax since 2013, including Arkansas in January 2019, and governors in four states, – Alabama, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota – have proposed gas tax increases in their 2019 budgets. However, Florida has one of the highest gas tax rates in the country and the automatic adjustment increased the tax by 0.6 cents for 2019. Additionally, as fuel efficiency increases and more people turn to electric vehicles, the gas tax will be a diminishing resource. Thus, state leaders should start considering implementing more direct user charges such as a vehicle miles traveled fee or road user charge. A number of other states have implemented pilot programs testing out those fees. Further, the need for more rail and multi-modal transportation options is a must to alleviate congestion statewide. With the new administration working together with Senate President Bill Galvano and his initiatives on expanding the road network, now is the time to invest in our roads, transit and rail. Until there is a change in the gas tax model from the federal level and because most counties lack transportation dedicated funding, tolling roads (which is a user fee vs. a tax) is the best option at this time.

Elaine Liftin

Elaine Liftin

President & Executive Director, Council for Educational Change

Of the many important issues the legislature needs to address, education is instrumental. Specifically, the current jobs/skills mismatch which impacts the state at many levels. Building an informed and prepared workforce impacts business development, economic empowerment, social stability, and many other areas. Business, industry, and technology are advancing at a quick pace, and community needs are ever changing. Education is not keeping up at the same pace. School leaders and educators are not aware of the new jobs and those on the horizon, and the skills needed to satisfy the current and future labor market. The engagement of the business community to support school leaders, educators, and students is essential to solving this problem – education, business partnerships, and job/career awareness is key. We’ve learned, through our experience with over 15 years of creating, monitoring, and evaluating business/education partnerships statewide that they are impactful and effective. Business/education partnerships are beneficial for both the school leader and the business leader.

Ana Lopez-Blazquez

Ana Lopez-Blazquez

Executive Vice President, Chief Strategy and Transformation Officer, Baptist Health South Florida

The legislature is set to take on many important issues during this session—from healthcare to the environment to school choice. As Floridians, I think it’s most important that our legislators work together to come up with effective solutions to these issues that affect our lives. Regardless of the topic, I want to see our officials make efforts to work beyond party lines to effect change and make a positive difference in our state.

Annie Lord

Annie Lord

Executive Director, Miami Homes For All

The most urgent issue facing Florida is the lack of affordable housing. Rapidly rising property values are driven by scarce land, foreign and out-of-state investment, and skyrocketing construction costs. Meanwhile, wages in our state are lower than in others, thanks to a largely service-driven economy. Soon, our economy won’t function, because labor cannot afford to live here. The Legislature’s number one solution is simple: fully fund the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund and put millions of dollars already raised into the development and preservation of affordable homes for hard-working Floridians.

David  Martin

David Martin

President, Terra

Ushering in forward-looking policies designed to harden our infrastructure and ensure Florida remains the country’s most resilient state should be among the legislature’s top priorities. Florida is confronting three realities that intersect: the long-term impacts of climate change, a fast-growing population, and the rising cost of living in our major metropolitan areas. Ensuring Florida remains a sustainable – and desirable – place to reside, visit and conduct business for years to come will require significant investment. It will also require partnership between government, the private sector and academia to match real-world solutions with changes to existing policies, as well as new funding sources. From creating Adaptation Action Areas and expanding access to tax increment financing (TIFs) as a vehicle for incentivizing smart real estate development in areas that are acutely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, to encouraging the construction of affordable and workforce housing communities in proximity to public transit systems, the State Legislature has an opportunity to show leadership on these critical issues.

Bob McClure

Bob McClure

President, James Madison Institute

Florida is the single most dynamic state in the Union. Its demographics reflect the entire country, and yet are uniquely different in each region of the state. People are moving here from across the country, indeed the world, so growth will continue and that will affect future decisions on education, healthcare, the tax and regulatory environment, transportation, property rights and virtually every major policy issue on the horizon. The quality of life and the economic environment uniquely combine to make this a place people come to pursue their version of the American Dream. So where do we want to be in 10, 20 or 30 years given this kind of dynamism? Technology alone tells us we cannot predict the future. So it starts with our communities, not dependence upon Tallahassee or Washington, D.C. It starts with conversation, not coercion. And it starts with a belief that individuals working shoulder to shoulder will be far more effective than any central planner at solving the important issues of the Sunshine State.

Melissa Medina

Melissa Medina

President, eMerge Americas

One of the biggest issues facing Florida is the environment. Between red tide, sea level rise, algae, water quality, flooding, and stronger hurricanes there has to be more emphasis in tackling these major issues head on. Communities and leaders throughout Florida must get ahead of this already escalating issue by appropriating the adequate research dollars to prevent a catastrophic future for our state. Our government leaders must also think much more innovatively and truly understand the scope of these environmental challenges if they don’t want to sacrifice the future quality of life for Florida residents.

Eric Montes de Oca

Eric Montes de Oca

President, Latin Builders Association and President, Grycon LLC.

Some of the top issues facing Florida, specifically Miami-Dade County, are the increased demand for transportation alternatives, increasing tourism and streamlining (less red tape) in zoning/building departments. How can our elected official address these pressing issues? Start with public transportation. The 12 penny sales tax increase has been in place for more than 16 years and traffic in Miami-Dade County has only gotten worse. The intent for the sales tax increase was to fund mass transit initiatives giving residents living in Miami Dade County transit options besides vehicular travel. Several plans have been presented from rail, to express bus lanes and to date, minimal mass transit has been approved and/or implemented. Most of the money collected from the 12 penny tax increase (which exceeds $1 billion) was utilized for operations and maintenance. The Legislature must pass regulations requiring local leaders to select a transit plan and start designing and constructing the most feasible option. These programs have been stalled due to “paralysis by analysis.” If something isn’t done soon, I feel taxpayers are going to start asking for their money back.

Gene Prescott

Gene Prescott

President, Biltmore Hotel

In a state as large and complex as Florida, choosing a singular “top issue” is a daunting if not unrealistic task. Must social issues such as affordable healthcare, work force housing, or the homeless compete with the economic viability concerns of sea level rise, coastal flooding, and saltwater intrusion? Are new roads and mass transit more important than repairing aging infrastructure? These “top issues” vie for the Legislature’s attention every session. Florida is the third largest state in the nation – and we are growing. Supporting that growth requires economic development to attract new business and industry. And few things are more important to encourage economic investment than a skilled and educated workforce. For that reason alone, I place education as the “top priority” our legislators should address. From pre-k to vocational and advanced academic degrees, our state’s public schools, colleges, and universities should have the financial resources and political support commensurate with a state our size. A recent opinion piece in The Miami Herald referenced 101 Florida mayors who are calling on the governor to make high-quality pre-kindergarten a priority in his education agenda. It’s an initiative sponsored by The Children’s Movement of Florida – and one I also wholeheartedly support.

Lenore Rodicio

Lenore Rodicio

Executive Vice President and Provost, Miami Dade College

Education is the key to the economic prosperity of Florida. Our state leaders need to prioritize higher education as a critical component of Florida’s infrastructure. The Florida College System (FCS) has become a national leader in student access, success and job placement. Our state colleges have re engineered their program offerings to closely align with state workforce needs. They have partnered with local businesses and industry to align curriculum with emerging skills and technologies, and to provide students with real-world experience through apprenticeships and internships so that they are job ready. This alignment and collaboration results in economic mobility for our graduates. Innovation, however, has a price, and the FCS has not fully recovered from the funding reductions of the last decade. And yet, every $1 of state tax money invested in the FCS yields a cumulative of $26.20 in benefits. Our colleges are a wise investment with measurable returns. Our leaders must recognize this fact and establish a fair and steady funding flow to the institutions that have truly become the workforce engines of our state.

Victoria Rogers

Victoria Rogers

VP/Arts, Knight Foundation

Across Florida, we’re experiencing the impact of changing demographics, social fragmentation and a lack of trust in democratic institutions. Community ties are weakening, and it is playing out in our neighborhoods, as people increasingly feel disconnected from each other, and in our politics, as divides grow deeper. To confront the problems that we face—from climate change to growing disparities in income and opportunity—and hone the assets that our rich natural resources, diversity and population growth present, our leaders must first seek to build bridges and push us toward connected action. One way to do that is through the arts. A Gallup study commissioned by Knight Foundation, called “Soul of the Community” surveyed 43,000 people in communities across the country from 2009-2011 to figure out: What attaches people to the place where they live? It showed that arts and culture are drivers of connection, even over education or employment. With funding for the arts decreasing, it is important for our elected representatives to recognize its wide-ranging impact. It is not only an avenue for building understanding, empathy and awareness, but also an economic driver, generating jobs, foot traffic for local businesses, tourism and income for the state. Through it, the rich diversity of Florida and its people can be reflected and celebrated. It is a critical component of building a vibrant, sustainable and connected Florida.

Kerry-Ann Royes

Kerry-Ann Royes

President & CEO, YWCA Miami

If Florida wants to move forward, then our state leaders had better reassess their priorities and deepen their commitment to public schools. Nearly 90 percent of our children attending primary and secondary schools in Florida – 2.8 million youngsters – rely on public schools for a quality education. Unfortunately, too many of them, especially those of color, are being shortchanged. Florida ranks near the bottom of all states when it comes to teacher pay and per-pupil spending. In Miami-Dade County and other school districts, there are too many aging school buildings, too few qualified instructors to fill vacant teaching positions, and a curricula that fails to prepare our children for tomorrow’s challenges. And now we must add school safety to the growing list of needs. I’m a parent and like most parents I want what’s best for my child. The mere fact that the vast majority of Florida’s schoolchildren show up every day at their neighborhood schools makes us adults responsible – especially our elected officials and those administrative officials who shape education policies and state budgets. From my vantage point, I see the hope and enthusiasm families bring to public schools every day. It’s more than education; it’s social justice. We deserve excellent public schools for ALL students.

Martha Saunders

Martha Saunders

President, University of West Florida

An energized, educated population can solve a lot of problems. Our leaders have the opportunity to make Florida the best educated state in the union. It’s a big, bodacious goal, but nothing worth having is easy. Specifically, I would urge support for a two-pronged approach: kindergarten readiness and professional readiness. Similar actions have gained traction in individual communities, but a wholesale program could catapult us over the top. We know that children who start behind, stay behind. We know, also, interventions can be effective, and students who are ready for kindergarten are more likely to graduate, earn post-secondary credentials, and start businesses. Florida has won recognition as having the top university system in the country, yet fewer than 20% of its adults have bachelor’s degrees. Strengthened statewide collaborations can help. In addition, every university in our state system has the capability of having at least one program that is the best in the world, given the right support. Get our kids ready for kindergarten and make sure every graduate is ready for a career.
Good things will flow from that.

Wendy Spencer

Wendy Spencer

President, Leadership Florida

Mass transit can be very expensive, difficult to plan around urban centers, and it’s not always on every lawmaker’s top priority list. Yet oftentimes the people who need reliable transportation most, are the very ones who do not have access to public transit systems to get to their jobs. These same workers are not always near a light rail or bus stop, nor have dependable transportation. Another hesitation from community and state leaders is the painfully long runway of time needed to add, expand, or enhance public transit systems. However, there is no better time than the present to plan and implement transit alternatives, plus there are so many more options for funding now which include public or private, or both! If we can start planning communities with mass transit in mind, we can get ahead of the rapid ongoing developments in city centers, and plan the workforce housing and transportation hand in hand. Let’s all pledge to promote short and long-range planning for mass transit!

Gene Stearns

Gene Stearns

Chairman, Stearns Weaver Miller

I see little hope in this Legislature but it is not the fault of the legislators themselves. They are hostage to fringe groups and economic interests who control both major parties and through Florida’s flawed primary system, control them. Many legislators would be better stewards of the public trust if they were allowed to be. The core problem is that Florida’s electoral system effectively disenfranchises voters who refuse to self-identify with either party – now more than half of new voters. As the parties have become more extreme, it has driven more and more voters to a non-party status, further strengthening the fringes. Allowing all voters to vote in all elections is the issue that trumps all others as there will be no serious effort to address our most pressing problems until all of the voters are allowed to participate in all elections. The legislature will not fix this. Restoring democracy to Florida will require an initiative petition and referendum amending the Florida Constitution. The ballot language for the petition has been filed and the signature gathering process should begin soon. There is hope.

Catherine Stempien

Catherine Stempien

President, Duke Energy Florida

Last year, 2018, was the third year in a row that Florida dealt with a significant hurricane. As a state, we continue to make improvements in our hurricane response efforts, learning from each disaster and sharing best practices across the state. Recently, now Lt. Governor Nunez led a select House committee on hurricane response, helping utilities and other important service providers closely examine what we do right and where we can improve. As part of this effort, we have strengthened reporting and communications protocols and created a comprehensive mutual aid apparatus allowing our work to be done quickly and safely. We continue to look for areas to continue improving here, including working with the state to ensure that utility workers have the ability to get to affected areas quickly so they can start their important restoration efforts expeditiously allowing families and businesses get back to normal as soon as safely possible. Another key area to focus on is that that utilities need to have a strategy to ensure that our systems are resilient. This resiliency includes implementing hardening projects such as replacement of poles, installation of self-healing grids and selected undergrounding where it makes sense. Duke Energy Florida has a 10 year plan to invest in these hardening projects, and we are now implementing the first phase of that work under a comprehensive settlement we negotiated with key state partners such as the Office of Public Counsel, Florida Industrial Power Users Group, Florida Retail Federation and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. In the 2019 Legislative session, we are partnering with FPL and other utilities to look at additional ways to improve and expedite undergrounding and hardening projects with the goal of achieving faster restoration times after natural disasters and other major outages.

Michelle Suskauer

Michelle Suskauer

President, Florida Bar. Partner, Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein

For The Florida Bar, the top issue facing Florida is ensuring our judicial system operates as a co-equal branch of government and our courts remain fair, impartial, accessible and adequately funded to protect the rights of Floridians and provide for the peaceful resolution of disputes. I respect the roles and procedures of the legislative and executive branches and trust the judgment of our state’s leaders who know providing access to justice to 21 million people must be a priority. As Florida’s population grows, it is important for the judicial branch to recruit and retain skilled workers and for the courts to have the technology needed for an efficient system. As the judicial branch is focused on fairness, we should all advocate to fund the courts’ budget priorities for the benefit of our citizens and businesses who turn to the courts for justice. Additionally, the need for criminal justice reform has reached crisis proportions and our legislative leaders are working on pressing issues including increasing inmate rehabilitative services and addressing staffing shortages. For Florida to thrive and for our citizens’ welfare and safety, our courts and justice system must be able to serve everyone.

David  Swanson

David Swanson

Senior Pastor, First Presbyterian Church of Orlando

The most pressing issue facing our Legislature in this next session is how our state’s leaders plan to care for the most vulnerable in our population: our homeless. Every major city in Florida has struggled to find effective solutions, though permanent supportive housing has proven effective for the chronically homeless. The two primary areas where our leaders must engage are mental health and affordable housing. Florida is 49th in mental health spending, so why are we surprised that our homeless population has soared? Homelessness and mental health are inextricably linked. Second, they must stop sweeping the affordable housing money known as the Sadowski Fund. Hundreds of millions have been taken from the fund in recent years which is why our state has fallen woefully behind in affordable housing units which then exposes families to homelessness. It’s time to protect those dollars and spend them to meet the humanitarian crisis.

Bob Ward

Bob Ward

President & CEO, Florida Council of 100

A top issue facing Florida that needs to be addressed is to create better linkages between degree and certificate production and the changing demand for identified job skills. This includes addressing Florida’s job growth, the needed integration of workforce planning efforts between our education providers and business and industry leaders, clearer workforce forecasting (such as reconstituting the former Economic and Demographic Research led workforce estimating conference abandoned several years ago), factoring into the state’s workforce planning for future trends such as automation and newly created jobs/skills yet to come online, filling/meeting the demand of growing high skill and middle skill gaps, and adding to our economic resiliency by increasing our targeted tradeable sectors such as growing careers in health care and health care innovation.

Will Weatherford

Will Weatherford

Managing Partner, Weatherford Capital; former Florida House Speaker

The top issue that every state will always face is the quality of education. We are facing a world where industries are being disrupted daily. Because of this challenge, Florida must have a renewed focus on primary and secondary education opportunities. Education is the great equalizer. A continuation of reforms centered around choice, innovation, student centered learning and expanded vocational programs should be their aim. I wish them well.

Jeffrey Welch

Jeffrey Welch

Group CEO, Florida Medical Center and Tenet Health Miami Dade Group

In a state as economically and demographically diverse as Florida, one commonality between us is the need for affordable and accessible health care. The focus the legislature has put on health care during the last several sessions has proven that our elected officials recognize the importance of this issue. However, healthcare spending continues to demand a greater share of the state’s budget. To combat this, lawmakers should consider innovative solutions that will result in the highest quality and lowest priced health care that is also accessible. Low-cost, high-quality care does nothing for Floridians that can’t access it. Accessible care that people are priced out of will not improve their health. These problems go hand in hand. Once we acknowledge this correlation we can begin to work together on the solution. A healthier Florida is a better Florida.

Tracy Wilson Mourning

Tracy Wilson Mourning

CEO, Honey Shine

Ever since I was a little girl, my mother would always say to me, ‘If they can keep you uneducated, they can control you.’ This is why I strongly believe that education equals freedom. Our government officials must always prioritize education regardless of everything else that’s happening. Our environment must also be a priority. We can look away and pretend that red algae, flooding and sea level rise are not affecting us, but in the end, how we take care of the environment is how we take care of our future. We have many critical issues in the state of Florida and we need lawmakers to look at our community and state needs and be dedicated to serving the majority of the people – and not dedicated to their own self-interest.

Marie Woodson

Marie Woodson

Retired Miami-Dade Public Administrator

One of the top issues which Floridians are currently facing is the “Restoration of Convicted Felons Rights”. As a state, we must respect the voters’ rights made clear during the last November election. They came out in large numbers to restore the rights to felons who have served their time. Amendment 4 was on the ballot as a constitutional amendment and it was approved. Gov. DeSantis indicated that Amendment 4 would require the Florida Legislature to pass legislation for the implementation of the Amendment before it can take effect. This will be pressing item when the Florida Legislature convenes on March 5, 2019. We must listen to the voters and ensure that their wish on this issue is carried out. This amendment was passed and the felon’s rights should be reinstated, automatically without impediments, as was the intent. The legislature must do the right thing and follow the law by respecting the voters. They must automatically restore the rights of felons who meet the criteria. By doing so, Florida will join 19 other states that restore the right to vote after prison time, parole and probation are completed.

Julie Wraithmell

Julie Wraithmell

Executive Director, Audubon Florida

Florida’s environment is our economy. Never has this been more apparent than in the wake of 2018’s “lost summer,” when Florida’s coasts were plagued by harmful algal blooms fueled by human pollution and a changing climate. Floridians are aware like never before that we can’t keep doing things the way we always have and expect our state to remain the same. Protecting and restoring our water and wetlands is not a partisan issue. Restoring the function of our environment is self-preservation—both literally and economically. This legislature must make meaningful investments in water and habitat protection through Florida Forever, Everglades Restoration, springs protection and land management. It must help Florida communities recover from recent storms and emerge more resilient in the face of rising, warming seas. As a state, we must implement meaningful new tools to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from septic tanks, agricultural and urban runoff, and replace the wetland functions we have lost to development. Florida is a vulnerable paradise and our challenges are great, but we are a state with a legacy of conservation and innovation leadership. I can’t wait to see the creativity and opportunity we find in meeting these challenges.