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  1. Opinion

Here’s what Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature should do—but won’t | Paula Dockery

Providing affordable health care, fixing state prisons and spending more on the environment should be priorities, the columnist writes.
Paula Dockery of Lakeland served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years. [Paula Dockery]
Paula Dockery of Lakeland served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years. [Paula Dockery]
Published Jan. 17

The opening of the 2020 Florida legislative session on Tuesday gave the speaker of the House, the Senate president and Florida’s governor the opportunity to lay out their plans for the 60-day process.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, addressed his signature issue, health care. Oliva assailed hospitals, medical device manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies for ballooning health care costs.

Oliva also wants to crack down on university spending — an issue I don’t really understand, as we don’t adequately fund our university system to keep up with maintenance and new construction needs.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, urged civility in his Senate address, a good message that highlights the need for respect and cooperation. However, the Senate, the House and the governor’s office are all controlled by the same party — Republican.

Gov. Ron DeSantis highlighted the environment and education in his speech before House and Senate members. While many in the news media cover his proposals on education and the environment as bipartisan efforts, both are viewed skeptically by environmental and education advocates.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, is applauded during his state of the state address to a joint session in Jan. 2020 in Tallahassee. [STEVE CANNON | AP]

DeSantis’ plan for teacher raises and bonuses is opposed by those representing the teachers. The day before session began thousands of teachers and education advocates came to Tallahassee from all over the state demanding a better plan that covers experienced teachers and staff.

DeSantis also touts his desire to address the environment -- particularly the state’s water crisis. However, those who devote their time and expertise in advocating for the environment give DeSantis low marks for what he is doing.

DeSantis directs most of his environmental spending to the Everglades, asking for the Legislature to budget $625 million for water resource projects. Much of the Everglades funding comes from the federal government, but it still needs legislative approval to include in the budget.

DeSantis still won’t implement Amendment One, the constitutional amendment that requires nearly $900 million this year on land conservation and management.

With this year’s legislative session under way, we should take a step back and look at our major problems and challenges. Instead of 120 House members and 40 Senate members all trying to pass their nearly 2,000 diverse and disparate bills, there should be a comprehensive and coordinated approach to address the real issues.

With a healthy $92 billion state budget, these are the issues I would address during the current 60-day legislative session:

The environment

An alligator prowls the waters in the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. Formed roughly 5,000 years ago, ironically enough, during a time of sea-level rise, the glades once comprised an area twice the size of New Jersey. [ROBERT F. BUKATY | AP]

We should fully fund Amendment One to preserve land, manage our natural resources and ensure clean and safe water resources. We should invest more in our state park system, which has a backlog of maintenance and resource management needs.

We should fight polluted water bodies at the source of the contamination and reinstitute environmental protections that have been removed. It’s less expensive to prevent water bodies from being degraded than to clean them up.

We need to treat climate change as the immediate threat that it is and develop policy to reduce its devastating effects and to assist communities in danger of rising sea-levels.

Public Education

The Rev. Al Sharpton, front center, leads protestors as they march during the Florida Education Association's "Take on Tallahassee" rally at the Old Capitol in Tallahassee. [PHIL SEARS | AP]

We should properly fund per pupil spending, increase teacher salaries to recruit and retain teachers, and treat teachers with the respect and dignity their profession deserves.

We should stop diverting limited funds to private and public charter schools — particularly for building maintenance and construction. Hold any school that receives public funding to the same standards and accountability.

Prison System

A thunderstorm moves over Florida's Death Row at Union Correctional Institution, Raiford, Fla. [CHERIE DIEZ | Tampa Bay Times]

We should properly fund our prisons to address personnel, facility and medical needs. We need to pay prison staff a professional wage that will help us attract and retain quality candidates, then offer them training and advancement opportunities. Weed out the bad characters and implement a zero-policy tolerance for abuse and contraband.

We need to fix or close prisons with dangerous conditions and build new prisons to replace those that are no longer feasible.

We also need to reduce our prison population by changing laws that incarcerated too many people for too long a sentence — using smart justice reforms targeting nonviolent offenders. The Legislature should repeal mandatory minimum sentences and reinstitute a meaningful parole system.

Health Care

Sandra Wells, right, a health care navigator at the University of South Florida, assists Tampa resident Lourdes Castellano, left, with her health care coverage options during an enrollment event.

We need to help reduce its cost while increasing quality and availability. The state should immediately expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act to provide coverage to 700,000 of Florida’s working poor.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She is now a registered NPA. PBDockery@gmail.com.

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