Opinion: Florida seniors deserve to be safe

https://www.naplesnews.com/story/opinion/contributors/2019/12/18/opinion-florida-seniors-deserve-safe/2690492001/

To me, the most important role of government is to keep Floridians safe. When we face a threat that poses harm to Florida families, law enforcement is there to protect us. When a hurricane barrels through our state, destroying homes and communities, a coordinated emergency response team descends to rescue those in need and provide food and water to those without.

But what about some of our seniors and other vulnerable adults who may not be capable of making independent decisions?

For many of these, a court-appointed guardian acts as their advocate and helps make decisions in their best interest. When I learned that there were a number of professional guardians who were charged with caring for others in need, but who used that responsibility to prey on these innocent people, I knew that the Legislature needed to step in and protect them.

In recent months, the news has reported stories of individuals serving as professional guardians throughout Florida who had committed terrible acts, leaving their wards in financial ruin or, worse, at the end of their life.

In one example, a guardian robbed her ward of money. In another, a guardian sold the ward’s house under market value. And in other examples, guardians signed “Do Not Resuscitate” orders for their ward without their consent or the permission of their loved ones. In these tragedies, the consequences were severe, and in some cases, fatal.

Most of the court-appointed guardians in this state are caring, dedicated individuals. However, seeing that a few bad actors have taken advantage of Floridians who need help the most, it is time for the rules to change.

That’s why, in partnership with Representative Colleen Burton (R, Lakeland), I filed legislation that creates additional protections for Florida’s most vulnerable adults. Our proposal aims to prevent professional guardians from preying on the innocent individuals they are charged to protect.

This legislation, SB 994 in the Senate and HB 709 in the House, would increase protections for individuals under guardianships by eliminating conflicts of interest, ensuring the vulnerable adults’ finances are protected, and prohibiting the guardian from signing “Do Not Resuscitate (DNR)” orders without permission from the court.

We developed this legislation in partnership with key stakeholders in the guardian program, including Secretary Richard Prudom of the Department of Elder Affairs, attorneys, Clerks of Court, professional and public guardians, and advocates for individuals under guardianship.

Floridians who require the help and support of a guardian should know they will be safe and protected. They should not have to fear untrustworthy criminals seeking to steal their valuables and deprive them of a well-lived life with friends and loved ones. This legislation will do just that.

Kathleen Passidomo is Florida’s Senate Majority Leader and the State Senator for District 28.

Commentary: Civic work helps shape legislative agenda

Commentary: Civic work helps shape legislative agenda

My friends and family urged me to respond to misinformation and personal attacks in a number of recent letters to the editor. Instead, I’d like my constituents to know who I am, what I’ve done and what I stand for.

I came to Naples in 1979 with my husband, John, as a bride fresh out of law school. My profession is important to me, and I worked hard at my career. I was in the first group of attorneys in the state to obtain board certification in real estate law. I was also honored to be elected by my peers to serve as president of both the Collier County Bar Association and the Collier County Women’s Bar Association.

As my career progressed I was mindful of my parents’ teaching to give back to the community. I did just that by using my background and legal skills to help almost 100 civic, charitable and business organizations with their corporate documents and governance structure.

From creating the Collier County Juvenile Justice Council to serving as co-chair of the community engagement initiative of the Education Foundation of Collier County-Champions For Learning (“Connect Now”) and as president of the Southwest Florida Land Preservation Trust to chairing the board of The United Way of Collier County, I had the opportunity to work with citizens from all over Southwest Florida with a common goal of making our community a better place to live, work, raise a family and retire.

Along the way, John and I had three daughters: Catarina, Francesca and Gabriella and now we have two grandchildren, William and Emilio.

I’ve always had the desire to run for public office so that I could take what I’ve learned at the local level to the state level. In 2010 when my youngest daughter headed off to college, I became an “empty nester.” I seized the opportunity to continue serving my community and ran for public office. I was elected to the Florida House in 2010 and then to the Florida Senate in 2016 and haven’t looked back.

As a member of the Legislature, I focus on issues important to Southwest Florida. My foreclosure reform bill grew out of a partnership I helped form of community, civic and governmental organizations to provide pro bono advice and assistance to people facing foreclosure.

Another community partnership in which I became involved, the Identity Theft Task Force, came about because of the burgeoning incidents of identity theft in our community, especially among our seniors. That partnership led to my sponsorship of a bill to combat identity fraud.

Last session the tragic shooting in Parkland prompted the Florida Legislature to act swiftly to ensure the safety of the students in our schools. I fought to make sure significant mental health funding was allocated to our schools and sponsored legislation to establish partnerships with local mental health providers.

I also championed several other critical issues during my time in the Legislature, including legislation to provide increased care to infants affected by opioid addiction and guardianship reform. I was also successful in obtaining significant funding for local needs.

I’m proud of the work that I’ve done but there is so much more to do. I have a “bucket list” of initiatives focused on helping our community that I will undertake, including more emphasis on mental health funding; a septic to sewer program to address one of the root causes of the algae problem besetting our state; continuing my fight to stop legislative “sweeps” of the affordable housing trust fund and continued focus on issues confronting our elderly population. For more see: KathleenPassidomo.com.

Editorial: Passidomo’s priorities a good road map for Legislature

Editorial: Passidomo’s priorities a good road map for Legislature

Bolstering mental health programs in a state that’s ranked No. 50 in per capita funding. Further protecting vulnerable elders from abuse. Making sure Florida pays competitive teacher salaries.

Stopping lawmakers from diverting money from Florida’s affordable housing trust funds in order to balance the budget. Addressing additional ways to protect our water quality, specifically by eliminating septic tanks that might leak into aquifers.

If that agenda was accomplished by the 2019 Legislature, it would be an extremely successful session. It’s the campaign platform of state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican who we enthusiastically endorse for re-election on the Nov. 6 ballot against an outstanding Democratic opponent, Annisa Karim.

Passidomo’s District 28 spans Collier and Hendry counties as well as southern and eastern Lee County.

In position
In a Republican-controlled Legislature, Passidomo, who has served in either the Florida House or Senate since 2010, should be well-positioned to help influence her chamber’s direction in 2019.

This year she chaired the pre-K through 12th-grade appropriations subcommittee, crafting a budget proposal that would have raised teacher salaries in Florida by 2 percent, significantly increased the allotment for teachers’ classroom supplies and created a new initiative to address mental health issues that are troubling students, thus affecting their schools.

Passidomo was on the right track to help public schools, but says two things happened: The House had different education spending priorities and the tragic South Florida high school shooting necessarily shifted the Legislature’s focus and spending to safety programs.

In the end, Passidomo says, the Legislature increased the student funding allocation for all programs by 1.4 percent or $101.50 per student total. Mental health assistance for schools, for example, received $69 million.

With leadership changes looming for 2019 in the House, Senate and governor’s mansion, Passidomo has the knowledge of the inner workings of the current education budget to pursue what’s needed in the state during her next term.

Similarly, it was her bipartisan bill to stop the legislative raids of the affordable housing trust fund that could have assisted Collier County and south Lee County as they now grapple with providing adequate housing options for the workforce and senior citizens. The 2018 bill didn’t pass, but she’s primed to try again.

Increased housing assistance for elders would add to Passidomo’s legislative accomplishments on behalf of seniors during the past eight years. An attorney, she’s pushed to strengthen protections for older residents covered under Florida’s guardianship laws.

What’s next?
While this year’s additional mental health money for students was an important first step, Passidomo calls it “the proverbial drop in a bucket of funding that we need for mental health prevention, early intervention and treatment” programs. She vows to advocate for adequate funding to follow through on a behavioral health initiative approved in 2016 by the Legislature.

As for protecting water quality, while various officials focus on other necessary aspects of this critical issue, Passidomo wants to explore an idea she’s dubbed “septic to sewer.” For example, she suggested environmental bonds might create financing so property owners can replace older septic tanks with connections to expanded sewage treatment systems. Septic tanks that leak into the groundwater are a concern, she says, and the outright cost of septic tank conversion or replacement is out of reach for many property owners if they don’t have financing.

Though we haven’t endorsed Karim in this race and didn’t in a 2016 Collier County Commission contest, it’s only because she’s challenged two of Collier’s political stalwarts. There’s no question Karim is well-prepared to become an accomplished public servant.

Opinion: Legislature working to uplift education in Florida

Opinion: Legislature working to uplift education in Florida

 

Florida’s students are our most important asset. They are Florida’s future: our future leaders, future workforce and future volunteers. Supporting our students — by providing a high-quality education — is the best and most important investment we can make in our state. And that is what we did this legislative session.

 

I am concerned about the recent spread of misinformation about education in our state. It’s a disservice to our students and our teachers to misrepresent how far we’ve come as a state and the investments we’ve made in our future.

Just 20 years ago, education in Florida had hit rock bottom. Florida’s high school graduation rate was just 52 percent, and half of the state’s fourth graders could not read at grade level. Since then, we have transformed our education system and improved learning in a very meaningful way.

 

Today, Florida’s graduation rate is at 88 percent. Florida students gained in all four National Assessment of Educational Progress assessments last year, and they made significant improvements in three of the four tests, while most of the nation remained stagnant. Just last month, U.S. News and World Report ranked Florida third in the nation for the best public high schools.

More: U.S. News & World Report: Three Collier high schools rank in top 75 in Florida.

 

Recently, the Florida Legislature worked to reduce the burden of tests on our students by eliminating several standardized tests and restricting the time students spent taking standardized tests to just 5 percent or less of the school year. We also provided school districts with greater local control when measuring student performance.

But we still have more work to do. This legislative session, we aimed to build on our students’ success with greater investments in our schools, more opportunities to reward high-performing teachers, fewer barriers for teachers to enter the profession, and improvements to the safety of our schools.

In the budget for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2019-2020, SB 2500, we dedicated $34.7 billion to education, or $800 million more than last year. Education funding makes up nearly one-quarter of the state’s entire budget. For Pre-K through 12 students we will spend $7,672 per student next year, or $242.60 more per student than the previous year. We dedicated $1.2 billion in our Voluntary Pre-K Program and School Readiness Programs. The Legislature also devoted more than $550 million for school district workforce programs, over $2 billion to colleges and over $5 billion to our state universities.

 

Knowing the important role that teachers play in the education and development of our students, we worked this session to reward the teachers who excel in this critical field. We provided $364 million in flexible spending for teacher pay raises or other district needs. We invested $285 million in the Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship program, which provides bonuses to teachers based on their performance in the classroom, and we restructured the awards to focus on recruiting experts in certain fields, retaining proven-effective teachers and recognizing teachers for their hard work.

In response to concerns about the cost and limitations for the teacher certification process, we passed measures requiring the state to establish exam fees, and specify requirements to reduce retake fees. In addition, we eliminated the one-year requirement for individuals teaching under a temporary certificate to demonstrate mastery of general knowledge.

Furthermore, we invested in the safety of our students. With the tragic massacre that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year, it is obvious that we needed to do more to create a safe learning environment for our students and teachers. Based on the recommendations of a non-partisan, multi-jurisdictional task force, made up of sheriffs, parents, teachers, mental health experts and others, we passed SB 7030. This legislation provides schools the resources they need to improve safety and security, as well as training to reduce the likelihood of at-risk students developing mental health disorders.

When evaluating education in our state, focus on the facts and ignore the myths. We have dedicated record amounts of funding to our students, rewarded our best performing teachers and improved the safety of our schools. I am proud of our investment in our students. They are Florida’s future.