About 90 people, including local business and government leaders, attended the Common Ground Breakfast hosted by the Flagler Chamber July 27.
The biggest issues before Florida's Legislature this past session were Lake Okeechobee discharge problems, education matters — including charter schools and funding for the state's Bright Futures scholarships — business and tourism incentives and preparing for 5G wireless technology, Florida Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Paul Renner told a packed room of business and community leaders at the Flagler Chamber's Common Ground Breakfast July 27.
The controversial state education bill — House Bill 7069 — passed during the legislative session drew criticism from local schools district officials, but they "communicated very well with us," Hutson said, and had contacted Hutson not only to mention concerns about the bill, but also the elements they supported.
The concerns revolved largely around the funding of charter schools: The new legislation gives them more public money, and was widely opposed by public school teachers and officials who didn't want to see funding drawn away from public schools.
But Hutson and Renner supported the measure.
"Does anyone in this room think that Child A deserves more money than Child B? When I ask that, most people say ‘No, they should be treated the same. Each child should get the same amount of money,'" Hutson said. "Well, that's what we did with 7069. What we found out is, in charter schools, those dollars that were being sent for your taxes were going to the district, and they weren’t going back to the charter school where you’re sending your kid in certain areas. …. Do you think school district s should deserve dollars for kids they don’t teach? Most people say no, they actually shouldn’t. So what that does in 7069 is we take those dollars and we say, it needs to follow this child; it needs to go to the actual charter if they’re going there."
Renner said the charter school provision gives students who live in an area with a failing public school systems a chance to improve their education by escaping it. "It is a moral issue," he said. "It is a moral issue to not leave that student in a failing school."
The bill also provides for teacher bonuses, Hutson said. "We actually really invested heavily in those teachers," he said.
The state also increased funding for the Bright Futures scholarship program that pays the tuition of high-achieving students who attend the state's public colleges and universities.
Hutson said fixing problems with Lake Okeechobee was the Senate's biggest effort. "We were on national news for having green algae on both the Atlantic coast and the Gulf, because we were sending water and discharge out of the lake," he said. People were calling it "guacamole water," and it was deterring tourists.
"So what the Senate did is we said, ‘We’re not going to kick the can down the road anymore, we’re going to fix this problem." The state will build a reservoir system to store discharge from the lake, rather than releasing it straight into canals that lead to the Gulf and the Intracoastal, where the polluted water leads to algae blooms and fish kills.
The state also passed legislation designed to ease the transition to 5G wireless, restricting the extent to which local governments can regulate where carriers place the wireless towers. That measure has critics among local government leaders who see it as undermining local authority. The state's pre-emption of much local regulation of medical marijuana also drew opposition from municipal governments.
Flagler Beach City Commissioner Jane Mealy addressed Hutson and Renner on local concerns about home rule, prefacing her remarks by saying the two lawmakers have "represented us well."
But, she said, "From a city point of view, statewide, there was an assault on home rule this year, we felt. I sit on a policy committee for the League of Cities, and the big push this year is going to be home rule, the protection of home rule."
She mentioned the wireless towers. "We didn't see, as a city, that as a good thing, because we lost the ability to control where those would go. The medical marijuana issue ... the state has decided where those dispensaries can go and how many there are. And I can give lots of other examples. So I guess where I'm going with this is: You just made a nice speech, Paul, about how you want to represent us, but why not include city governments more?"
Hutson answered, saying that some of the bills that might have felt like an assault "maybe were only filed on one side of the aisle. … It kind of created a firestorm of: Someone told someone, and all of a sudden they think this is going to become law." The final legislation tended to be less restrictive of cities, he said.
He acknowledged that the league had opposed the wireless bill, which Hutson had sponsored. But, he said, "As we went through the process, I gave you a lot of flexibility. ... If you really look at where that bill ended up, it had a lot of flexibility."
Renner spoke about the Legislature's move to roll back the state's business incentive and tourism incentive programs, Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, in opposition to Governor Rick Scott, who supports the programs.
"The approach there simply is this: that each and every one of you, when you pay taxes, are asked to give up your own priorities for yourself, your families, for your children," Renner said. "You don’t have a choice, they don’t give you an option, and so we better get the big things right. We better take these tax dollars and use them in some way they comes back to your benefit."
That would be things like public schools, public safety and infrastructure — not tax incentives designed to draw businesses to the state, he said.
"We had a situation where it's a race to the bottom," he said. "Can Florida outbid Georgia, can Georgia outbid South Carolina? Who can spend the biggest bribe, essentially, with the taxpayers’ dollars, to bring a company into the state of Florida or keep them here? And we said that needs to end, and we shouldn’t be picking winners or losers. … Having the government engaged in that is not what we should be doing."