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  1. Florida Politics

Florida lawmakers pass top-priority water, special-needs bills

Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, wipes away tears Wednesday as the Senate voted 39-0 for legislation that promises to provide new post-secondary education options to students with special needs. The legislation was a top priority for Gardiner, who has a special-needs son. On Thursday, the House approved the measure, sending it on to Gov. Rick Scott.  [SCOTT KEELER |TIMES]
Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, wipes away tears Wednesday as the Senate voted 39-0 for legislation that promises to provide new post-secondary education options to students with special needs. The legislation was a top priority for Gardiner, who has a special-needs son. On Thursday, the House approved the measure, sending it on to Gov. Rick Scott. [SCOTT KEELER |TIMES]
Published Jan. 15, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers this week moved swiftly to change state water policy and increase educational options for children with special needs.

The bills — the first to be sent to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature this year — have been the top priorities for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, since they took office after the 2014 election. Their passage is a sign of good faith between the two chambers, which spent much of 2015 clashing over Medicaid expansion, the state budget and redistricting.

"This just sets the tone," Gardiner said. "I think you're going to see us work together quite a bit."

Scott intends to sign both bills into law next Thursday, spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said.

While Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature heralded the two pieces of legislation as noteworthy compromises, some outside groups warn that the water bill may not live up to expectations. Some environmentalists said the measure could create a false sense of protection for Florida's endangered springs systems.

The Florida Springs Council, a consortium of about 35 organizations, as well as 106 environmental groups sent a letter last month to legislative leaders warning that the bill falls short of what's needed to prevent substantial erosion of the state's fragile water system.

Among their concerns is the measure fails to require the state's heaviest users of freshwater, often agriculture and industry, to report their water usage.

They also wanted water management districts to establish standards for groundwater withdrawal and suggested that the state impose a pricing schedule that discourages the withdrawal of water from the state's fragile aquifer, instead of the current system that encourages it.

The bills, which are supported by the agriculture industry and the state's largest business organizations, require that farms surrounding Lake Okeechobee establish management plans to be used by regulators to monitor water usage.

"What we have to grapple with in this Legislature is that reality," said Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers. "That we want to preserve and maintain and conserve what we all love about this state and its resources, and the reality that we're going to continue to grow."

The Audubon Society of Florida backed the bill, but its leaders say they will continue to work on getting stronger springs protections enacted in the future.

House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said that's not a responsible way to write state policy. He and Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, were the only two lawmakers in either chamber to vote against the water bill.

"If you're going to propose a comprehensive water bill, then it should be comprehensive, not only in terms of policy, but in terms of science," Pafford said.

Educating students with special needs

The other bill headed to Scott for a signature drew even less controversy, with just one member of the House, Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, voting against it.

The education bill will expand a pilot project at the University of Central Florida that allows special-needs students to live and take classes at the school for a modified degree or certificate.

Gardiner's oldest child, Andrew, 12, has Down syndrome, and his parents wanted to increase options for him to attend college.

Lawmakers also included what Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, on Wednesday called a "giveaway to the school uniform industry," setting aside $14 million as an incentive for school districts and charter schools to require school uniforms. That is on top of $10 million set aside last year.

The bill also expands the Personal Learning Scholarship Program. And in a rare unscripted moment Wednesday, before passing the measure on to the House, the Senate voted to rename the program after Gardiner.

"I would be honored to be associated with this," he said, fighting back tears. "We do a lot of things in Tallahassee that you find out in a mail piece later that maybe you regret, but I can tell you that (for) each of us, Republican or Democrat, things like this is why you come up here."

Times/Herald staff writer Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.