Paula Dockery: Florida legislators failed to make the state better

Published May 10, 2019

The 2019 legislative session came to an anticlimactic end. Was it a success? It depends on whom you ask.

Pundits and some in the news media create lists of winners and losers, touting those who passed legislation even if it does harm to the state or goes against what most Floridians want and slighting those whose good policy failed or never got a hearing.

Success shouldn't be measured by who pushed through divisive stuff, but rather by who represented the voters and the best interest of all Floridians. Based on my desire to see the state better off after session ends than before it started, I would rate the session a failure.

Having participated in 16 regular legislative sessions, let me relate what usually plays out.

A public kumbaya will be held in the Capitol rotunda, where House and Senate leadership will heap praise on each other and the governor. The media will cover it and quote all the platitudes. Members of the majority party will go home and send out newsletters proclaiming that the people of Florida were well served and that they were responsible for such a productive and successful session. They then go on post-session speaking engagements to reinforce the positive spin.

The problem is very few Florida voters are paying attention to what happens in Tallahassee and even fewer understand what they're seeing. Voters generally like their representatives and want to believe what they say whether it's accurate or not.

Those in power know they can get away with following the party line, going along with special interests and ignoring voters' wishes with little or no penalty.

The economy is humming along nicely. Budget revenues are estimated to be the highest in history with over $91 billion. An unpopular governor has been replaced by one that voters feel better about because he says things that seem reasonable to more than just his hardcore voter base.

This was an opportunity for the Legislature to support issues with broad statewide appeal. Instead, they pushed through an ultraconservative ideological agenda — not for the good of the state but because they could.

The Legislature pushed far-right favorites such as banning sanctuary cities, expanding vouchers and arming teachers.

The voter-passed constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to nonviolent ex-felons required no implementing language, but the Legislature interfered anyway. They thwarted voters' intentions by adding financial hurdles that were not anticipated nor warranted. The result is fewer ex-offenders that have served their time will be allowed to vote. Some legal experts call this a poll tax. No doubt it will be challenged in court.

The Legislature continues to thumb its nose at Amendment 1. Instead of fully funding Florida Forever at $300 million, they funded $33 million — even less than the $100 million Gov. Ron DeSantis requested. They did fund Everglades restoration, although the details are murky.

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They could have protected the environment by banning fracking, but they failed to do so by setting up competing bills in the Florida House and Senate.

This could have finally been the year for real criminal justice reform to correct some fairness flaws while keeping Floridians safe and saving us hundreds of millions of dollars. Instead, they passed a weaker version without the savings or fundamental changes for time served and judicial discretion.

Public education was the biggest loser. Our teachers again didn't get an across-the-board raise but another one-year bonus for some. With an ongoing teacher shortage and a $2.4 billion bump in revenues, you'd think a raise and some positive policy changes would be in order. Nope.

Instead, we saw another attack on public education. To be fair, there was an increase of $243 per student in education funding. But the bills the Legislature chose to pass diverted money from traditional public schools to vouchers and charter schools. Another legal challenge is likely on the taxpayers' dime.

In the biggest slap in the face to public education, public district schools won't receive any of the $158 million for maintenance of school buildings — only charter schools can receive that state money. So if your child's school has a leaky roof, too bad.

It gets worse. The Legislature also passed a bill that requires school districts to share local referendum money with charter schools.

Did the state become a better place after this legislative session? Not by a long shot.

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.