The requests came in fast and furious, in three-minute speaking blocks, as 68 people made their pitches to Brevard County’s delegation to the Florida Legislature.
The environment — especially water quality — was a recurring topic of discussion at the delegation’s recent annual meeting at Port Canaveral, both from individual constituents and from representatives of local government bodies.
But the issues that came up were wide-ranging during the four-hour meeting — health care, education, space, business development, transportation and a host of others.
After hearing the presentations, Sen. Debbie Mayfield of Melbourne told the speakers in the audience: “This is the one time during the year that our constituents come in, and they talk to us about their needs and their issues. And it’s real. It’s real for you. It’s real for us. We do listen to what you say, and we do take back what you say back to Tallahassee.”
Rep. Tyler Sirois of Cocoa said one of the challenges he struggles with as a legislator is “how to prioritize all of the work that needs to be done, and how to care for all of the issues that are critical to our state, and to serve this purpose of work of representation to all people.”
Here is a sampling of what the six Republican state legislators whose districts include Brevard County heard during their meeting:
Water-quality issues: This was easily the most frequently raised subject during the delegation meeting. It was brought up in nine of the 11 local government presentations and 12 of the 57 presentations by community organizations or individuals.
Among the specific areas discussed were state funding to help restore the Indian River Lagoon; ways to reduce the use of septic tanks; ways to better dispose of sewage sludge, also known as biosolids; better stormwater and sewer pipe infrastructure; impacts of the use of reclaimed water for irrigation; reducing the use of fertilizer; a ban on fracking; increasing funding for water management districts; increased monitoring of the condition of waterways; and removal of derelict boat from bodies of water.
“All of Florida’s waters are begging for help,” said M.J. Waters, president of the Brevard Indian River Lagoon Coalition. “We have big challenges that require big solutions, big thinking and consistent funding to solve.”
St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman, who also is chair of Waterkeepers Florida, told legislators that “we need to have more aggressive water-quality protections for all Florida waters, equal protections for all waters, because all Floridians deserve clean water. And we also need to stop pollution at its source.”
Rinaman said that, “sadly, our waters in the state of Florida are in a state of crisis. We have blue-green algae, red tide, brown tide, toxins that are impacting our ability to not only enjoy our waterways, but also to reap the benefits that they provide when they’re healthy waters. And so, not only is this an environmental issue, it’s economic, and it’s also a health issues. So we’re looking for more protections for all of Florida waters.”
“So we need to figure out how to get this right,” Rinaman said. “It’s not going to get any better if we don’t have some more stringent protections, because Florida is growing at more than 900 people a day. We have to have a sustainable plan moving forward.”
Cigarettes and vaping: Three representatives of the Tobacco Free Brevard Partnership — including two students who are members of the Students Working Against Tobacco Club at Melbourne High — asked legislators to do what they can to regulate the use cigarettes and e-cigarettes, especially by minors.
This included stricter licensing of tobacco retailers and educating the public about the dangers of vaping.
“The tobacco industry spends billions of dollars to market its deadly products in retail stores, paying retailers to prominently display tobacco products, exhibiting in-store advertising, offering price discounts and other in-store promotions,” Melbourne High student Rachel Deal told the legislators. “Exposure to tobacco marketing in stores is a primary cause of youth smoking.”
After their presentation, Mayfield noted that their concerns parallel those expressed to the delegation by members of the Brevard School Board and school district staff.
“Vaping is an issue, and you’ll see legislation this year related to the vaping and the flavored tobacco,” Mayfield said.
Separately, several municipal officials asked the state legislators to allow counties, cities and towns to restrict cigarette smoking in public parks — a regulatory area that currently is preempted to the state of Florida.
Indian Harbour Beach City Manager Mark Ryan said his city “supports legislation authorizing cities and counties to establish designated smoke-free zones or a designated smoking area in a public park. The youth of our communities deserve to play on a playground, to be in a park, to watch a sibling play a ballgame, to go in a skate park without having to endure secondhand smoke. We’re not saying ‘you can’t smoke in a park.’ Our goal here is to set an opportunity for the young people, the future of our community, to have a healthy environment to play in our parks.”
Personal hygiene: Satellite Beach resident Vicki Impoco asked the legislators to support various bills introduced for the Florida Legislature’s two-month-long 2020 session that begins Jan. 14.
Among them are a bill to require that sanitary napkins and tampons be provided for free in female bathrooms in public schools.
“Women typically spend around $300 annually on menstrual products, which can cause a financial strain for low-income students and their families,” Impoco said. “Currently, 23% of Florida’s children are living below the poverty level, and 66% of public school children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch.”
“According to a recent survey, 1 in 5 girls have either left school early or miss school entirely because they did not have access to menstrual products,” Impoco said. “Feminine hygiene products are a health care necessity, and are not items that can be forgone or substituted, A period should end a sentence. It shouldn’t end education. Hygiene should not be a luxury for girls in Florida’s public schools, and providing these products will go a long way towards equity in education.”
Impoco noted that Gov Ron DeSantis earlier this year signed into law a bill approved by the Florida Legislature mandating that menstrual products be provided at no cost to Florida’s female inmates.
Also on the list of 2020 bills Impoco sought support for was one adding a sales tax exemption for diapers and incontinence products.
Film and television industry: Three speakers addressed concerns they had with Florida’s lack of competitiveness, compared with many other states, in attracting film, television and digital media projects — and the accompanying jobs. A major competitor is neighboring Georgia.
John Lux, executive director of Film Florida, a statewide, not-for-profit organizationX that represents the 50,000 Floridians that work in the film, television and digital-media industry, said Florida in the last year hosted 14 “high-profile, high-impact” film and television projects.
“That’s an improvement over the last three years. And we’re very happy about that,” Lux said. “But, to put that in perspective, Florida has hosted 14 major projects, while Georgia has hosted 399.”
He said that has cost Floridians jobs and cost the tourism industry revenue from hotel stays, with 70 projects that wanted to film in Florida opting to go elsewhere, at least partly because of a lack of financial incentives.
“There are some that are philosophically opposed to the government being involved in economic development,” Lux said. “And while I respect that philosophy, unfortunately, we don’t live in a philosophical world. We live in the real world, where 37 other states, both red and blue states, and many countries, don’t subscribe to that philosophy, which leaves Florida at a huge competitive disadvantage. Our industry is blue-collar, high-wage, clean jobs that can help diversify Florida’s economy.”
Film Florida President and Space Coast Film Commissioner Bonnie King said Brevard County in recent years lost two feature films and a television show, all space-themed, to Georgia and Louisiana — and, with it, nearly $100 million in potential economic impact.
“Right now, a major TV show called ‘The Right Stuff’ is being filmed right here on the Space Coast for the National Geographic Channel. They will spend more than $20 million in the local communities of the Space Coast, Orlando and Tampa, hiring more than 2,000 Floridians in less than six months,” King said. “My concern is, if this TV show becomes a hit, and they film Season 2, that they will stay in Los Angeles, using the stock footage that they shot here during Season 1 — and then collecting a bonus from the California Film Commission for bringing a TV show back home to Los Angeles.”
Emergency Operations Center: Brevard County Commission Vice Chair Bryan Lober sought support of the legislators for additional state funding to build a new Emergency Operations Center on a site adjacent to the current aging and undersized facility in Rockledge.
“As many of you know, the EOC is in a state of, I don’t want to say disrepair, but there is certainly a lot of room to improve,” Lober told the state legislators.
A challenge for the county is securing about $14 million in funding to build a new EOC. The county already has lined up $4 million for site work that is underway.
Illegal immigrants: Merritt Island resident John Weiler asked legislators to support a bill that would require both government and private employers statewide to get verification that people they hire are legally in the United States, through the E-Verify program.
Weiler said the bill “should be very specific and very brief, with no loopholes. My ideal bill will simply state: ‘The state of Florida wishes to ensure that all persons working within the state of Florida are American citizens or persons authorized by the federal government to work the U.S. Hence, the state of Florida requires that all employers should use the federal E-Verify system to validate the employee’s right to U.S. employment. Upon determining that a current or future employee is not so authorized, employers shall dismiss the person, and report such to local authorities. Employer failure to comply will be considered a felony, with associated fines and imprisonment.”
Weiler said small family farms for five or fewer employees should be exempt, and not be required to vet employees or family members.
“We all know that illegal immigration is a national issue that is greatly affecting the economy, and a social services monetary burden at both the Florida state and federal government levels,” Weiler said.
Weiler said he also fears an “intrusion of illegal aliens will attempt to register to vote, and, when successful, will affect the outcome of our local, state and federal elections.”
Rep. Thad Altman of Indialantic told Weiler that he has sought such legislation in the past, as a member of both the Florida House and Senate, but has failed to get the bills out of committee.
“It’s frustrating,” Altman said, adding that he hopes to try again in 2020.
Real estate issues: Melissa Goldman, president-elect of the Space Coast Association of Realtors, brought up several issues of concern to the area’s 4,600 Realtors.
Among them, she said, is affordable housing, particularly assuring that money the state generates from documentary stamp taxes charged on real estate transactions is used for affordable housing programs, as it was intended, and not diverted for other purposes.
“For thousands of families, these funds are the only way to realize the American dream of homeownership,” Goldman said. “We will continue to advocate for full funding from the trust funds to be allocated for affordable housing projects, and not to be used for other budget line items.”
Goldman said her association also is supporting a reduction in the 5.5% Florida sales tax on business rent, which she said creates “financial burden for any business at leases space.”
“Lowering the business rent tax will provide Florida businesses with the capital to expand, hire more employees, improve benefits and raise salaries,” Goldman said.
Dave Berman is government editor at FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Berman at 321-242-3649
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