Northwest Florida Lawmakers Reflect On Good & Bad of 2017 Legislative Session

May 17, 2017

Florida lawmakers wrapped up the 2017 legislative session last week, three days behind schedule. This week, WUWF caught up with some legislators from Northwest Florida to get their impressions, as they wait to see what the governor will do and if they’ll be called back for a special session to deal with medical marijuana regulations.

“Well, it was uh, I would say this is probably one of the most unique sessions in the last 30 years,” said District one Senator Doug Broxson, referencing the  influence that House Speaker Richard Corcoran had on the regular session, where more than 3,000 bills were filed, but fewer than 250 were passed before the Legislature adjourned.

“He (Corcoran) pulled out every possible method he could think of to persuade  both the house and senate as to what was best for the state of Florida. And, really, he was involved in making some cultural change in the way we conduct policy and we’ll see how it works out.”

For the region, there was nothing bigger than the agreement over the release of $300 million dollars from Florida’s share of the BP Oil Spill Settlement to the eight most impacted counties via Triumph Gulf Coast.  

“Hopefully by summer they’ll be taking applications and we’ll see some stimulus in our marketplace,” Broxson said. “And it will be an advantage that we should have over the rest of the state, in that we have the first deposit of $1.5Billion that’s coming our way directly to stimulate the economy.”

Statewide, lawmakers’ most important action was passage of an $82.4 billion dollar state budget ($83 billion in spending), which Broxson says had some pros and cons.

“Unfortunately, I think the K-12 did not do as much as I wanted it them  to do. We took the House version of what they perceive which it leans heavy on charter schools and there was quite a bit of debate about that. Higher Ed did well, the University of West Florida. Pensacola State College not so much; they were very disappointed in that and hopefully we can do better for them next year.”

The cut to state colleges was about $30 million statewide.  For UWF, the Legislature’s proposed budget includes $4.4 million for phase 3 of the Laboratory Sciences Annex, $2.5 million for the Office of Economic Development and Engagement, and $1 million for development of the Intelligent Systems and Robotics PhD program.

Elsewhere in Escambia County, the spending plan includes $3.1 million for the “The Bluffs,” Northwest Florida’s industrial campus to be located in Pensacola. There’s a half million for improvements to the Muscogee Road Freight Corridor and $421,000 for the National Flight Academy.

“Specifically, I had $1 million to go to the city of Milton Riverwalk; that comes out of the tourism dollars,” said District 3 Representative Jayer Williamson, whose district covers parts of Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties.

“There was $600,000 for the wastewater treatment plant for east Milton, $1 million to the I-10 Industrial Park in Santa Rosa County, which will be really good to get that park shovel ready for businesses to come in. So we fared well overall and I know the other representatives also did well when it comes to appropriation. And, now we're just (going) to wait for the governor and hopefully he'll think that those projects were beneficial as well and he'll sign them so we can have that funding sent to the Panhandle.”

Williamson is one of three freshman lawmakers from Northwest Florida, along with District 2 Rep. Frank White and District 4 Rep. Mel Ponder, now serving in the House of Representatives. The District 1 representative is Clay Ingram, who was first elected in 2010.

Four of the six bills Williamson sponsored were passed.  

Also, thanks to Representatives Brad Drake and Clay Ingram, who headed the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, he was able to run the Department of Transportation’s policy bill for the whole state, which was the last bill passed in the Senate. 

“It’s a bill that pretty much everybody tries to get their hands on, because there’re so many things that are germane to transportation. So, at the last day or two, everybody’s trying to pile on,” Williamson said. “Any bill that failed during the year, their trying to pile it on to the transportation bill so it’ll pass. So, we had to play a lot of defense to keep bad amendments off the bill and put it into position to pass, because it only passes about once every 5-6 years.”

Locally, the FDOT bill includes a feasibility study to determine whether the state should take over the Garcon Point Bridge, connecting north and south Santa Rosa County.

From Okaloosa County, Rep. Ponder notes just one bill that he was able to get through both chambers, given this year’s lean budget and legislative work load.

There’s no funding attached, but the measure allows Okaloosa to sign on to the state’s Mental Health Diversion Pilot Program.

“There’s an existing program down in Miami-Dade County by a Judge (Steve) Liefman that works with the mental health community in a diversion program to keep them out of jail and attack the matter first hand,” Ponder said. “And, so, two other counties got added to the pilot program last year and then Okaloosa, we are within the 18-county footprint of the Community Big Bend Area. We’re the number one county of need.”

Also in Okaloosa, Northwest Florida State College is slated to receive $5.8 million for a couple of renovation and repair projects. There’s $1.7 million for the widening of P.J. Adams Parkway in Crestview, and $300,000 for the city of Fort Walton Beach to relocate the historic Gulf View Hotel and turn it into a welcome center.

At this point, it’s a waiting game to see what parts of the budget will survive Governor Rick Scott’s veto pen. And, because of the de-funding of Enterprise Florida and severe cuts to Visit Florida, he’s threatening to veto the whole thing.

Meantime, there are mounting calls for a special session on medical marijuana, and Ponder, Williamson and Broxson all agree that lawmakers should be called back to carry through with implementation of Amendment 2.

A special session could be convened by Gov. Scott alone or jointly by House Speaker Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron.