The Florida Influencer Series

Did 2019 Legislature solve Florida’s pressing problems? Yes and no, Influencers say

Florida Priorities: What Florida wants

Aminda Marqués Gonzalez and George Haj talk with Cindy Arenberg Seltzer, Julie Wraithmell, Rhea Law, Chris Caines and Victoria Kasdan during the Florida Priorities event at the University of Miami on November 14th, 2018.
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Aminda Marqués Gonzalez and George Haj talk with Cindy Arenberg Seltzer, Julie Wraithmell, Rhea Law, Chris Caines and Victoria Kasdan during the Florida Priorities event at the University of Miami on November 14th, 2018.

In November, Florida Influencers — 50 of the state’s top leaders in business, healthcare, law, nonprofits and the arts — offered their views on the issues that matter most to people who live in our state. They came together for an in-person summit and produced concrete recommendations for the new governor and Legislature, which were delivered to lawmakers in the form of a white paper last winter.

Here are five core issues that are of most importance to the Florida Influencers, and how they’ve shaped up during this year’s legislative session, which ended May 4.

Education

The Florida Influencers ranked education as the most pressing issue of the year, as it is intertwined with many other key issues in the state.

The top priorities among Influencers when it came to education were raising teacher pay, reducing class sizes and prioritizing traditional public schools over charter schools.

Their first recommendation was that the District Cost Differential for education should be reinstated, or that some other methodology should be developed to consider the dramatically different cost of living in different counties.

There were bills in both chambers to address the cost differential, but they died as they waited for data from the Department of Education. The data would have shown how a change in the formula would affect each district.

Influencers also said that new sources of revenue for PECO (Public Education Capital Outlay) should be explored. PECO is the main source of state funding for infrastructure for kindergarten through higher education, and a portion of that money comes from a percentage of gross receipts on telecommunication services, which are on the outs as people move away from traditional land lines. The Influencers say the PECO definition should be updated to include Internet and cellular phone services.

PECO revenue was not a key topic addressed this legislative session.

To promote school safety, Influencers said lawmakers should bring attention to mental health alongside the physical hardening of school buildings.

This issue was addressed last year, when the state included a mental health allocation as part of the per-student funding that each school gets. This year it laid out more specific guidelines about what districts should do to offer better mental health services in the same bill that also allows classroom teachers to be armed.

Chris Caines, former director of the Miami Urban Future Initiative at Florida International University, said the school safety bill was “unacceptable legislation.”

“Every year I lower my expectations for the state Legislature, and every year I watch in disbelief as some of the most unacceptable legislation one can possibly conceive of becomes law,” he said. “Next year I’ll be setting the bar below the graves of the first unarmed students shot by a teacher carrying a concealed firearm in a classroom. Maybe that’ll be low enough — for the cowardly group of people in Tallahassee calling themselves public servants yet setting an agenda seemingly predicated on selling out Floridians special interests — to hit.”

The Influencers also recommend that lottery and local referenda funding should be used to supplement the state education general revenue and not be used to replace it. Influencers say the funds should be used to increase teacher pay to solve teacher shortages and retention issues.

A revamp to the teacher bonus system this year did not increase teacher pay, but instead created a three-tiered bonus system for new teachers who are experts in certain subjects that are needed in many districts; those rated “effective” or “highly effective” whose school has improved a certain amount over the prior three years; and teachers or other staff selected by the principal who must also have high evaluation marks. Many teachers have said they would prefer a salary raise over a bonus program, which did not happen this year.

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Healthcare

With regard to healthcare — the biggest slice of the state’s $91.1 billion budget — Influencers ranked expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act as the top healthcare priority in the state. Most Influencers did not see providing universal healthcare as a realistic possibility in the short term.

The Influencers’ first recommendation to the state was that it draw down federal dollars to insure Floridians and expand Medicaid in the state. They also said the Legislature should include protections in case federal funding drops below a certain threshold. They hoped that eligibility criteria is left alone for the time being and that lawmakers consider subsidy options or premium reductions to bridge those who fall within 101 percent to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

While the Influencers hoped for expanded Medicaid, Florida actually moved in the opposite direction. The Republican-controlled Legislature shortened the time period for retroactive payment of hospital bills, and made a policy change that will likely push people with disabilities into privatized care. Democrats, who sought and failed to get a single hearing on Medicaid expansion in the Legislature this year, have their eyes on a citizen initiative to get Medicaid expansion on the 2020 ballot.

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Baptist Health South Florida CEO and Influencer Brian Keeley called the decision to not expand Medicaid “ill-advised.”

“The only way this will happen is through the ‘will of the people’ — a statewide referendum to force this needed change to cover the 800,000 low-income residents who do not qualify for Medicaid under the current law,” he said. “Where do these poor souls now secure healthcare?”

Keeley said emergency rooms are the most expensive and “inappropriate” way to deliver care, which is subsidized by people who have commercial insurance.

“It is much better to provide coverage for these low-incomers via Medicaid expansion so they have access to primary care with its emphasis on prevention and wellness — and avoiding expensive ER [emergency room] visits and hospitalizations,” he said.

The second recommendation by the Influencers was reconsidering the use of the Low Income Pool, which reimburses hospitals for care given to uninsured patients. They hoped that lawmakers would continue to fund hospitals that care for low-income individuals and allow the money to follow the patient. Additionally, they asked that accountability measures ensure that the money is being properly spent.

The Low Income Pool didn’t figure into state legislation this year.

The last recommendation by the Influencers was that the state fund projects across the state to test new ideas for better care, expanded access and lower costs.

When it comes to innovative projects, the Legislature reversed a longstanding ban on needle exchanges and allowed counties statewide to approve their own programs. However, those programs will not be funded by the state.

Jeff Johnson, state director of AARP, said he appreciated some areas where the Legislature thought intentionally about expanding access to and affordability of healthcare by means of a prescription drug importation program, telehealth and others.

“Taken as a whole, these changes reflect the point Influencers made about the need for Florida to pursue new ideas to provide care, expand access and lower costs,” he said.

Environment

When it comes to protecting Florida’s sensitive and unique environment, the Influencers hoped the Legislature would address four key points: create benchmarks for environmental resilience, prioritize water management and Everglades restoration, bring more accountability to state agencies and tackle growth management and land conservation.

By means of policy bills and appropriations, the Legislature completed a bipartisan effort to invest in water management, improve water quality and help address nutrient sources such as septic tanks and solid waste that are linked to feeding toxic algae blooms and possibly red tide.

The Legislature passed a $4.8 million bill to fund more red tide research within the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and, according to the recommended budget proposal, “would support the Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force and partnerships for mitigation and technology development with a renewed focus on red tide.”

They also passed a budget that includes about $682 million for environmental needs like Everglades restoration, which was one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ premier campaign promises. The $682 million exceeds DeSantis’ $625 million proposal, and includes $322.6 million for Lake Okeechobee restoration and an additional $50 million for springs.

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When it comes to growth management and land conservation, the money didn’t come through as strong. The budget proposes spending $33 million to buy and preserve land under the Florida Forever program — far less than the $100 million DeSantis wanted and what lawmakers spent last year.

Audubon Florida CEO Julie Wraithmell said there’s “reason for optimism” with DeSantis’ water and Everglades agenda, which she said will make a real difference for protecting wildlife, drinking water and coastal water quality.

She said, however, that while the Everglades and water appropriations were “truly heroic,” land protection funding was “anemic.”

“We can’t fix our water woes without protecting the places that recharge our aquifer and clean and store water,” she said. “The state needs to have well-funded land acquisition and easement programs as tools if we’re really going to see the rapid and meaningful improvements that Floridians are demanding.”

Transportation

Among other things, the Influencers hoped there would be more robust public education and enthusiasm for mass transportation options, similar to the enthusiasm around the PortMiami tunnel. They also hoped that the Legislature would develop measurable goals to improve public transit, make investments and incentives for transit-oriented development, and encourage employers to embrace telecommuting, flexible work hours and public transit subsidies for employees to reduce peak-hour traffic congestion

The Legislature in 2019 did not address these concerns but instead addressed other transportation-related topics by rewriting Miami-Dade County’s transportation tax rules and abolishing the county’s Expressway Authority.

It also took steps toward improving transportation by expanding the use of autonomous vehicles in Florida and elevating texting while driving to a primary offense — meaning police can stop a driver for texting just as they would for speeding or running a stop sign.

Guns

When it comes to issues of gun violence, the Influencers determined that the Legislature needed to require background checks for all private gun sales, streamline the concealed carry licensing process and create a statewide database of unlawful gun-related activity,

They also suggested the Legislature prohibit abusive dating partners from possessing firearms and reform the Stand Your Ground law to clarify the language that immunity should not preclude an investigation. Their last recommendation was that the state develop training materials for law enforcement officers on best practices for investigating Stand Your Ground cases

None of these things happened in the Legislature this year.

“I would hope that the Legislature will look more favorably on [our] recommendations next year,” said Rhea Law, of the Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney firm.

Samantha J. Gross is a state government reporter for the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times bureau in Tallahassee, where she covers state government and politics. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.


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