By LINDA CHION KENNEY
The state budget deficit and pandemic woes made the list of top concerns for Hillsborough County legislators as they prepare for the upcoming legislative session, set to run March 2 through April 30.
In attendance at the Feb. 19 Zoom meeting, hosted by the Tampa Tiger Bay Club, were state senators Janet Cruz (D-18) and Danny Burgess (R-20) and House representatives Fentrice Driskell (D-63) and Lawrence McClure (R-58).
Florida is one of 22 Republican state trifectas, with Republicans holding the governor’s office and majorities in both the Senate (24-16) and House (78-42).
In addition to the looming budget deficit, the legislators collectively addressed matters concerning veterans, evictions, government regulations, policing, lead in schools and deserted African-American cemeteries.
But first, COVID-19 and the state’s tested economy:
“We have a $2.7 billion shortfall this year, and my priority would be to make sure that services don’t suffer because that seems to be the area that takes the biggest hit,” Cruz said. She added that there is movement in the House to collect Internet sales tax dollars owed in Florida but not collected, as a means to help plug the deficit.
Expecting “a budget year unlike anything I’ve certainly been a part of,” McClure said it’s going to take “a deep dive to understand where we can trim” to pass a balanced budget.
He described his focus as an “overarching umbrella” for a post-pandemic economic recovery. He co-authored House Bill 7, which provides that the plaintiff bears the burden of proof in civil liability cases for damages related to COVID-19.
McClure said the bill affecting “COVID liability protections for our business community” moved through three committees and should be on the floor in the first week of the legislative session.
As chair of the senate’s newly formed Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response, Burgess said “quite a bit of policy from this silo” should be forthcoming, including a report on what the legislature’s role should be in such matters moving forward.
“We’re leaving no stone unturned,” Burgess said. “We’re building this plane as we’re flying it, and that’s okay because this is a new committee, never been established before. We’ve never been in a state of emergency this long before.”
Rounding out the pandemic discussion, Rep. Driskell discussed an evictions bill that would require more residential cases to go through mediation. Ideally with this bill, she said, “we can keep more Floridians in their homes during these very trying economic times.”
Along with the evictions measure, Driskell said she is carrying the torch for the “entire Florida Legislative Black Caucus.” As such, Driskell said she is honored to carry a bill on abandoned African American cemeteries and that she is committed to “supporting just and fair policing,” including the creation of a database for use-of-force incidents, “so that we can prevent bad officers from jumping from place to place.”
Rep. McClure double-downed on his concerns for “overall economic recovery,” focusing on deregulation and finding efficiencies within duplicative regulations.
In addition to her comments on the budget shortfall, Cruz said her top issues are educational opportunities for disabled veterans and continuing her drive to “get the lead out” of Hillsborough County schools. A third issue concerns bad state contracts.
“We have a company that failed miserably when it came to the [state] unemployment website that crashed,” Cruz said. “We spent $135 million on a contract to redesign, then we had to go back and spend millions more to fix that. And then to make it even more egregious, we turned around and gave that same company another contract.”
Cruz said her bill would stop bad contractors in their tracks.
“If you did not deliver on one contract, you certainly are not going to receive a second contract,” Cruz said.
As former executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, Burgess named veteran suicides and mental health overall as a top concern of his, and even more so in the wake of the ongoing pandemic.
“We haven’t even seen the tail end of what we’re still going through, and I think this is going to be an extremely long tail,” Burgess said.
Rounding out his top three issues, Burgess said he would like to “focus on restoring faith in politics today.”
“There are four legislators on this [Feb. 19] call that may have different opinions as to how to do things and different approaches, but we all want the same thing,” Burgess said. “We all want to do what we believe is right for the people of Florida, and, especially, the communities we represent. If we all operated with that understanding, I think we can get a lot done.”
To keep track on the upcoming legislative session, sign up for legislative tracking accounts at www.flsenate.gov and www.myfloridahouse.gov. To view the Feb. 19 meeting online, including questions and answers with Tampa Tiger Bay Club members, visit https://www.tigerbayclub.com. Tampa Tiger Bay Club is a non-partisan assembly that does not endorse any candidate for office. Inquire about membership.