January 9, 2016  |  Naples Daily News

2016 legislative session

When the Florida Legislature convenes Tuesday, it begins a session that carries particular significance for Collier County.

The face of Collier’s legislative delegation will change dramatically, possibly completely, as a result of the 2016 elections and redistricting.

Collier lawmakers hold No. 2 leadership positions in both chambers. The pro tempore in the Senate, Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, can’t run again due to term limits and has no other political aspirations. The pro tempore in the House, Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, is in his last term. He is one of three candidates for Richter’s seat, which Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, also is seeking rather than run for re-election.

Meanwhile, Senate redistricting maps a judge recently approved eliminate the cross-state district of Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, in favor of one representing Collier and south Lee. So Bullard no longer would be part of Collier’s delegation.

With so many new lawmakers in both chambers after 2016 elections, Collier won’t have the Tallahassee sway in 2017 that it will have this session.

So what do we hope to see accomplished?

+++ End on time. The session is supposed to last 60 days. Last year, the House abruptly quit the regular session a few days early, leaving unfinished business. Costly special sessions were necessary on the budget and redistricting. We don’t expect a repeat this session because lawmakers across Florida will want to be campaigning in this election year. Even so, finish on time.

+++ Hands off. There’s no more pressing issue in Collier than the rising cost of homes and rentals. Double-digit increases in prices over a year ago leave housing out of the reach of families, single professionals, seniors and front-line workers. The state is supposed to dedicate a percentage of documentary stamp money from property sales to address affordable housing. In recent years, the Legislature needed money to balance the budget and dipped into the housing trust funds. Nearly $324 million could be available statewide in the 2016-17 budget. If the trust funds aren’t raided again, Collier government could receive $3.6 million compared with $1.5 million this year.

+++ Water; don’t drain it. For two years since water quality and quantity were identified as top issues by legislative leaders, comprehensive reforms haven’t passed. Bills in both chambers would set aside $200 million a year for Everglades restoration, including reducing phosphorous pollutants in Lake Okeechobee. That could help clean up discharges into the Caloosahatchee River toward coastal estuaries. Amendment 1 dollars would be tapped. Voters decided in 2014 about $750 million yearly should be set aside in the state budget for land acquisition and conservation. Using that money for water conservation and protection is a plus, provided lawmakers allocate significant dollars for land acquisition, which they failed to do in 2015. Some environmental groups are concerned pollution reduction deadlines are missing in bills poised for early passage.

+++ Drilling. Inland oil drilling reforms advocated by two Southwest Florida lawmakers nearly passed in 2015. Since then, a growing list of Florida counties and cities have stated their concerns about fracking, or fracturing of rock layers to enhance oil production. Collier commissioners, satisfied with the bills proposed a year ago, want changes this year. As now proposed, the measures need modification to respect what local communities say they want, especially where drilling is prevalent as it is in Southwest Florida.

+++ Accountability stability. Florida changed its statewide test a year ago. Some bills introduced want to switch to national tests for assessing school performance. Lawmakers should chart a specific course forward with an accountability system on how it’s going to grade schools and educators. Put stability in the system before penalizing districts and schools that don’t perform.

+++ Bills authorizing the open carrying of guns statewide, and measures allowing guns on Florida campuses or within public schools, should be dropped. They’re distractions to far more pressing issues for the state.

+++ Make roads safer for cyclists, pedestrians and drivers. The state had set a goal of reducing traffic deaths to 2,084 in 2015. But nearly 2,950 died, 40 percent more than the benchmark. Florida needs to catch up with other states on distracted driving laws.

Article last accessed here on January 14, 2016.

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