Naples Daily News
State Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, gave her take on the latest legislative session to her “peeps.”
She was joined by Reps. Byron Donalds and Bob Rommel, of Naples, who discussed some of the issues and results of the 2018 legislative session Wednesday at a breakfast hosted by the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce at Hilton Naples.
The annual event drew a packed house of more than 100 business, government and community leaders.
The No. 1 issue in the session became recovery from Hurricane Irma, Passidomo said. The state, she said, doled out $600 million to deal with the powerful storm’s aftereffects.
“Hopefully, we’ll get that back from FEMA,” Passidomo said. “Nobody knows.”
As a result of the storm, the way nursing homes and other senior facilities prepare for hurricanes and deal with their aftermath became a “big deal,” she said. Nursing home residents died following power outages that knocked out air-conditioning for days in sweltering heat in South Florida.
Another top issue heading into the session was the opioid crisis. Then there was the school shooting at a Florida high school in Parkland on Feb. 14, which brought school safety to the forefront, Passidomo said.
“Everything else went through the window,” she said.
The No. 1 success of the session was passing a $400 million bipartisan school safety bill, signed by the governor, Passidomo said.
“I will never apologize for voting for that bill,” she said.
Passidomo said she and other legislators took a lot of heat for the bill. She said she received volumes of letters and emails, criticizing her, insulting her and calling her names for supporting it.
“I know that was a very good bill because nobody likes it,” Passidomo said.
The measure — dubbed the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act” — made significant changes to gun laws and school security and increased funding for mental health treatment. It was vehemently opposed by the National Rifle Association, which filed a lawsuit the same day the governor signed it into action.
Fewer than 200 bills passed both chambers last session. Normally, the count is closer to 250, but this year was different because of the big issues on the table, such as school safety and the opioid epidemic, Passidomo said.
“It was a very good session,” she said. “I’m proud of what we did.”
Donalds said it was “great to be home,” although he missed getting anywhere he needed to be in 5 to 10 minutes like he does in Tallahassee. The second-term lawmaker took more of a leadership role this year on issues such as education and health quality.
Donalds served as vice chairman of the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, putting him in the media spotlight and requiring him to work more closely with legislative staff on crafting bills.
One of Donalds’ priorities was House Bill 1, which he proposed to provide state scholarships, or vouchers, to private schools for students bullied in public schools. The “Hope Scholarship” program became part of a major K-12 education bill, which passed both houses and was signed by the governor.
“It’s a tremendous honor to run a top priority,” he said.
Donalds touched on the importance of building relationships in the Legislature to get work done for all Floridians.
Southwest Florida has strong leaders in Tallahassee, Rommel said, including Passidomo, who he said could be the “future Senate president.”
Rommel served as vice chairman of the Oversight, Transparency & Administration Subcommittee, as well as serving on several other committees. He said he hoped to make headway on such issues as workers’ compensation reform and tort reform, but like others got caught up in dealing with the opioid and school safety concerns.
Rommel discussed a bill he championed in the 2017 session that changed the law to allow college and university officials to meet privately to discuss plans to deal with potential terrorist attacks, public safety crisis, and other campus emergencies — and the importance of that legislation after the Parkland shooting.
The state’s budget for next year totals more than $88 billion. It includes $97 million in one-time tax cuts — mostly sales tax holidays — which Rommel said he was “pretty proud of.”
While the state’s budget seems huge, Passidomo said it’s half the size of New York’s. Most of the budget in Florida goes toward education and health care, she said, with about 25 percent of it steered toward public safety, infrastructure, environmental spending and government operations.
The number of state employees per capita in Florida is among the lowest in the country, Passidomo said.
“We really don’t have a lot of discretionary funds to use,” she said.
Donalds said the state’s growing budget has much to do with a growing population, which means higher costs for health care and a greater number of students in public schools.
In closing Passidomo briefly addressed another controversial issue involving beach access and property rights.
A bill that passed both houses and was signed into law by the governor restricts local government’s ability to pass customary-use ordinances designed to ensure public access to private beaches. A judge now will decide whether the public can walk or sun themselves on privately owned sand.
The sand below the high tide line always is open to walking, fishing and other beach activities. Anything landward could be private property.
In passing the law, Passidomo said the legislature was “just trying to do the right thing.”
The new law won’t have as much of an impact in Collier County as it will on Walton County, between Pensacola and Panama City in the Panhandle, which enacted a customary-use ordinance allowing visitors to walk, sunbathe and picnic on private beaches a year ago.
“We renourish our beaches,” Passidomo said. “So you definitely have a lot of space to walk on.”