Florida Legislative Session Requires Close Attention

Lee Future urges readers to join us in actively monitoring and participating in the legislative consideration of the development review process and to protect and restore local control of these matters. These decisions should remain here with us, the residents of Lee County.

OpEd originally published on Jan. 8, 2020 by Roger Williams in Florida Weekly

The game starts Tuesday, Jan. 14, on a political field of challenges unlike any Floridians have seen before.

Our 40 state senators and 120 representatives will kick off the 2020 legislative session with one quarterback, Gov. Ron DeSantis, and one goal: to establish a state budget in 60 days, by March 13 when the whistle blows.

They do so in the nation’s third most populous state, on a Census year and during a presidential election year arguably the most important since 1860.

In Florida, experts from a Russian cyber warfare unit hacked the election systems in at least two counties during the 2016 presidential election. Citizens have been assured by sober, nonpartisan experts the Russians are trying again. Like many leaders in other states, Gov. DeSantis has moved with money and planning to stiffen the security across the state.

Meanwhile, Florida’s environment is now degrading at an unprecedented rate as a current population of 21.5 million climbs toward 26 million by 2030, according demographers. Threats to water, wildlife, tourism and health are climbing with the population numbers.

Here’s a closer look at two challenges the Tallahassee team faces.

The U.S. Census: In social, environmental or security terms, the Census count lacks importance. In economic and political terms, however, it’s huge.

Once every 10 years, state governments have a chance to reap significant federal funding help for infrastructure, the environment, security, schools and other needs simply by encouraging residents — any residents, from anywhere, with or without citizenship — to be counted “present” in the United States Census.

Each individual counted is worth roughly $19,000 to a given state in federal money spent either directly or indirectly over a 10-year period to improve our lives, according to a study by George Washington University. Additionally, states can gain or lose U.S. legislative seats based on Census Count populations. In this case, Florida is one of only two states with a chance to gain two new seats in the U.S. House of Representatives by 2022 — but only if our numbers are high enough in the 2020 count.

Since the federal government will spend less money this year than a decade ago to do the count, at least 30 states established committees last year to help city, county and community organizations encourage people to be counted. At the same time, six state legislatures and 11 governors have taken action to help, reports fiscalnote.com, an online news source that weighs challenges and actions by states in economic terms.

Unfortunately, several factors complicate the outcome of the Census for Florida. First, Gov. DeSantis has taken no action to support a successful count with state money, although two legislators, Sen. Bobby Powell of West Palm Beach and Rep. Anika Omphroy of Lauderdale Lakes, have filed a proposal for the 2020 session to establish a committee to help achieve a robust count (Senate Bill 614 and House Bill 475).

They’d better hurry.

Second, some numbers: In 2010, 86 percent of people said they would respond to the Census. In 2018, only 68 percent anticipated responding, polls show. Since about 20 percent or more than 4 million of Florida’s current population are immigrants with just over half of them naturalized citizens, according to the Census Bureau, it’s especially important all of them respond.

Supposing a million people were not counted in the 2020 Census? In Florida the number could be significantly higher than that. At $19,000 a person, by the 2030 census — the next time Floridians have a chance at this grab-bag of money and political power — Florida would have lost $19 billion.

Using current estimates, that figure would be sufficient to clean up the entire Everglades system from north to south and east to west, and still have two or three billion dollars left over for ice cream.

Unharnessed development: Legislators this session have an opportunity to rescind a potentially damaging new law with an even worse last-minute amendment they passed and the governor signed at the end of the 2019 session — the amendment came through no committee and received no scrutiny by legislative aides or the public, let alone legislators, who never debated it.

The law, HB 7103, stops local governments from forcing developers to include affordable housing in their big projects.

And the amendment to HB 7103, introduced by Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, requires any landowners or citizen organizations that sue local governments — city or county governments that allow developers to violate a county’s comprehensive plan — to pay the court costs if they lose.

The threat of bankruptcy or ruin to challengers, therefore, will usually squelch their willingness to resist violations. And silence is deleterious.

Part of the problem is history: Floridians now live with a less healthy environment besieged by almost a decade of regulatory disassembly created by then Gov. and now Sen. Rick Scott. Nothing like this has occurred previously in the history of Florida.

With his many Republican supporters, Scott abolished the Department of Community Affairs in 2011 and did away with protections that once could prevent county or city politicians from ignoring state-mandated comprehensive plans first established in 1985. In such plans growth is never the enemy. Smart growth, however, is the singular and sole goal.

That went away with Scott. And now, for example, many developers, helped by their elected friends in local governments, have secured permits to develop wetlands crucial to the integrity of regional environments and previously protected by comprehensive plans.

Perhaps legislation proposed in the coming session to rescind HB 7103 by Sen. Lori Berman and Rep. Joseph Casello, both Democrats, will be recognized by Republicans as good for everybody — everybody except all-growth-is-good-growth developers. Including their own constituents.

Or perhaps not.

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