Friday, December 15, 2017

Column: For a better Legislature

As 2015 comes to an end, Floridians sadly look back over a less than stellar performance by our Legislature.

The regular session ended without a budget — the one and only thing that the Legislature must pass. There were three costly special sessions called — one for completing the budget it failed to do, and two for redrawing congressional and senate districts.

The House and Senate were at odds over several major issues and appeared to lack the ability to rise above the acrimony. Leadership races in both chambers were divisive and led to an erosion of trust.

Not many of Florida's 20 million residents pay close attention to the inner workings of state government in Tallahassee, but those who do voice strong opinions. Those I hear from don't feel like the policymakers are listening to them. Voters who supported the constitutional amendments that passed feel they are being ignored.

But legislators have the chance to start 2016 with a clean slate.

The Legislature will meet earlier for its regular legislative session. Instead of the usual March start, the session begins on Jan. 12. It's an election year, so legislators on the campaign trail might be a little more tuned in to the voters' wishes.

Here's my advice to the powers that be in Tallahassee for a successful session that truly addresses the needs of the state and the voice of the voters.

Consider these resolutions a good-faith effort to restore the voters' trust.

• Finish the session on time — within 60 days — with a balanced budget. With healthy revenue projections of a $635 million surplus, avoid the temptation to waste tax dollars on special interest projects and budget turkeys.

• Give tax cuts only after the state's needs are met.

• Prioritize spending in the approximately $79 billion budget.

• Give all state employees a raise. Most have not seen a salary increase in eight years except for a small increase three years ago to offset a change in their pension fund contribution.

• Refrain from throwing $250 million in corporate subsidies to wealthy corporations and instead provide some funding — perhaps $50 million — to help small businesses start or expand.

• Fund Amendment 1 as 72 percent of the voters intended. One-third of all documentary stamp tax collected is to be set aside for its implementation. The most recent revenue projections peg that at $960 million. Fully fund Florida Forever ($300 million) and Everglades restoration ($200 million). The rest should be used for springs protection, water resource restoration and management of state-owned environmental and recreation lands.

• Fully fund our state parks, including operations, maintenance and capital projects. Stop the foolishness of forcing incompatible uses and privatization in the parks such as golf courses, cattle grazing, timber harvesting and hunting. Parks are not intended to be profit centers for the politically well-connected.

• Properly fund transportation to accommodate our growing population and replace and repair our crumbling infrastructure.

• Address deficiencies in our mental health systems, services for the developmentally disabled and staffing and training for those responsible for protecting children under the state's supervision.

• Expand Medicaid to cover Florida's working poor.

• Fix the prison system: Properly train Department of Corrections employees and offer advancement opportunities. Create an independent oversight commission to ensure zero tolerance for inmate abuse, corruption and contraband. Provide proven programs for treatment of addiction and mental illness as well as education, job training and re-entry preparation to reduce recidivism.

• Fix the criminal justice system: Replace minimum mandatory sentences with judicial discretion. Reduce penalties for nonviolent offenses and offer less expensive alternatives to incarceration. Restore the real use of parole for those who have served their time.

• Properly fund our traditional public schools for instructional costs and facility building, maintenance and repair before funding nonpublic assets.

• Fully fund our colleges and universities to accommodate growth and facility needs.

• Drastically reduce the standardized testing in our schools and stop the practice of using test results for high-stakes purposes.

• Return the education commissioner to an elected position and member of the Cabinet by passing the joint resolution sponsored by state Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, and state Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah.

• Fix the water bill to more equally balance environmental protection with development and agriculture.

• Support the expansion of solar power by removing barriers. Put the solar choice amendment language in statute or support the solar bill sponsored by state Rep. Fred Costello, R-Port Orange, and state Sen. Thad Altman, R-Cape Canaveral.

These are fiscally responsible suggestions that prioritize spending, make us safer and improve our quality of life. And restore the voters' trust.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at [email protected]

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