Members of Southwest Florida’s state legislative delegation met this week with members of the Chamber of Southwest Florida in Fort Myers for a look at their priorities ahead of this year’s legislative session.
Across the board, water quality and the environment remain among the top issues for state lawmakers in Southwest Florida, along with education and healthcare.
Sens. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers and Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and Reps. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral and Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers praised Gov. Ron DeSantis’ emphasis on addressing Everglades Restoration and water quality protection following the governor’s Tuesday announcement that he wants $625 million for various projects related to studying and addressing those issues.
“We’re very excited, one, that he’s taken such an important, strong and purposeful stand for the environment. We’re equally proud that he chose to make that announcement here in Southwest Florida,” said Sen. Benacquisto.
“The delegation, and myself personally, have been committed to those projects for some time now and the continuation of that funding is a priority for all of us. Wherever we can make continuing improvements in infrastructure and in the water quality category, we’re going to fight for that.”
Recent estimates from the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research project a 4.8 percent increase in general revenue collections this year, which translates to lawmakers having $1.48 billion more than they did last year as they work to craft a balanced budget.
Rep. Eagle says that doesn’t necessarily mean lawmakers will be able to fund all of DeSantis’ environmental priorities.
“We just had Hurricane Michael in the Panhandle. So, that’s going to take a lot of that (budget surplus) and then projections for the next few years don’t look as great,” said Eagle.
“So while we’re seeing that surplus, we’ve got to be very responsible in how we manage that as in years to come, we may not have that. So, let’s be prudent as we move forward.”
Leadership changes in both legislative chambers this year could also affect Southwest Florida’s representation. Sen. Passidomo and Rep. Eagle have been named ‘Majority Leader’ of their respective chambers, which mean they won’t be able to file as many bills as they have in years past, but both will be playing influential roles in the process of determining which bills get passed across the board.
“After I put in a number of bills into drafting and filed a number of bills, the President (Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton) appointed me Majority Leader and because of that role, it’s very difficult to go ahead and file bills or to even work on bills because you’re so busy,” said Passidomo.
“I have been able to get most of my bills transferred over to my colleagues.”
Aside from addressing issues related to water quality, Passidomo said one of her top priorities continues to be mental health funding, particularly in the school system. Last year, Passidomo was presenting a bill aimed at partnering school districts with mental health providers to the Senate’s K-12 Education Appropriations committee at the very moment the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was taking place.
“I still to this day can’t get it out of my head,” said Passidomo. “I keep saying, ‘Those who do those horrific acts were not born that way and we need to address their issues when they’re young when they first develop. Otherwise, we’re never going to stop this.’”
Rep. Fitzenhagen highlighted several bills she is sponsoring this year including (HB 245), which would revise school health immunization requirements to include the vaccine for human papillomavirus, or HPV.
“They don’t have to take it,” said Fitzenhagen, “but it’s so important because we have learned that the HPV virus irrefutably causes cancer. So, anything that we can do to limit the amount of cancers in this world, I think, is a just cause.”
Fitzenhagen is also sponsoring this year’s proposal to ban fracking in the state (HB 239). Similar bills have not passed the legislature in recent years, but she said supporters of the proposal are hopeful this year because Gov. DeSantis has come out against fracking.
“He (DeSantis) is an environmental champion in the sense that he knows that taking care of the environment is good for business in Florida and he wants to make sure that we keep our state healthy,” said Fitzenhagen.
“I think that it is going to be a battle, but it’s one that I want to wage because I think it’s so important for our constituency and I know it’s the best thing for the state of Florida.”
During the Associated Press annual legislative preview, Wednesday, House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Hialeah, said he plans to support the bill.
This year’s 60-day legislative session begins March 5.