Joe Negron reaffirms policy goals as he takes over as Florida Senate president
As Sen. Joe Negron officially took over control of the Florida Senate on Tuesday, the Republican from Stuart outlined once again his priorities for improving higher education, stopping harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee and reforming juvenile justice.
Negron first detailed those plans in his designation speech almost a year ago, but now he's in a position to personally drive that agenda for the next two years.
The Florida Senate unanimously elected Negron as its chamber president for the 2016-18 term during the Senate's one-day organizational session on Tuesday, which lasted roughly two hours.
Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores was also elected unanimously as Negron's No. 2; she is the first Hispanic woman to hold the position of Senate president pro tempore -- and among several Miami-Dade lawmakers in positions of power for this upcoming term.
In his 15-minute acceptance speech, Negron demonstrated some of his most well-known characteristics: thoughtful deliberation and a wonkish knack for public policy.
His top priority is higher education. "Let's make our good universities great," he said.
Among his plans, Negron wants to:
-- give university leaders discretion over finances to recruit and retain top faculty
-- focus on professional schools, such as those teaching law, medicine and business
-- address aging infrastructure and deferred maintenance
-- make college more affordable for students
-- and, improve the universities' four-year graduation rates.
Negron also said he wants to defend the right of free speech on public college and university campuses -- pointedly noting he hopes Florida's institutions "will continue to reject the culture of coddling that has consumed some campuses around our country the past few weeks and months."
"Dating back all the way to antiquity, institutions of higher education have always served as forums for free speech and the open exchange of ideas," Negron said. "No one has a right to shut down speech simply because it makes someone feel uncomfortable. We should train students to articulate and defend their ideas in an open and responsible way that prepares them for the real world."
In the one moment of applause during his speech, Negron got a somewhat tepid reaction from the chamber when he discussed his goal to buy more land to increase water storage south of Lake Okeechobee. Harmful discharges from the lake have polluted the fragile Everglades and caused devastating algae blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
"We’ve been talking about a southern reservoir for 20 years. The time for talk is over; it’s time to act," Negron said, adding later: "I believe within our $82 billion budget we can fund the priorities of today, instead of just duplicating the decisions of yesterday."
Negron got personal when speaking about his desire for juvenile justice reform -- revealing an experience from his youth in which he and some friends plastered Ronald Reagan stickers throughout Palm Beach County's exclusive Jupiter Island and, in particular, on the nameplate of a Bush family home there.
He said he was quickly busted. When he arrived back home with a rush of adrenaline, the phone was ringing and he jokingly answered it with the greeting: "Ronald Reagan headquarters, how can I help you?"
A police lieutenant was on the other end of the line.
But rather than arrest the young Negron, the officer gave him 40 minutes to remove all the stickers, Negron recalled.
"I got in my car, went back to the island, and I undid our mischief and that was the end of that," Negron said, joking that "the statute of limitations has now expired" on what could have been five different and serious criminal charges for his actions.
"We cannot, we should not tolerate serious wrongdoing by young people, but at the same time, let's not criminalize adolescents," said Negron, who is himself an attorney. "I would probably still be explaining this on bar exam questions, on law school applications, questions at editorial board interviews ... so I understand the issue and I understand the importance of preventative and restorative approaches in juvenile justice, and I look forward to the Senate’s work on that."
In one of the main purposes for the ceremonial organizational session, Florida Supreme Court Justice Ricky Polston began the day by swearing in the chamber's 40 senators, five at a time. Newly reelected Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, was absent for medical reasons.
Several state and federal officials attended at least part of the Senate session: Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee, Republican Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera and almost all of the Florida Cabinet: Republicans Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Scott was on the Senate floor just long enough to be introduced.
Noticeably absent entirely: Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi.