The Palm Beach County Commission heard county staff’s final report on the 2013 legislative session Tuesday, naming several victories and losses.
Legislative Affairs Director Todd Bonlarron (shown above) introduced the seven-member team that lobbied for the county.
“As you can see, we have quite a large team, but it’s a very efficient team and has worked very well together,” Bonlarron said. “I give them a lot of credit for many of the things that they are going to report to you today.”
Chris Moya gave an overview of the session climate. “We really were at a place where we had billions of dollars in surplus,” Moya said. “We had a governor who maybe changed messaging a bit to a more populous message, but interestingly enough, we had probably the largest generational gap between two presiding officers in the history of the state, which really made a difference.”
That included State Rep. Will Weatherford (R-District 38), the youngest speaker in state history. “The House reflected that philosophically. It was very principle based,” Moya said.
Meanwhile, a CEO and self-made millionaire, State Sen. Don Gaetz (R-District 4), ran that body. “He was very process driven and much older than the speaker,” Moya said. “As a result, a lot of bills with a lot of merit fell by the wayside.”
As a result of the $4.7 billion surplus, $2.8 billion went into reserves, and about $1 billion more went to education, Moya said. “In total, this team, with your help, brought home over a quarter billion dollars to this community,” he said.
Rachael Merlan, executive director of the Palm Beach County Legislative Delegation, said the $4.7 billion surplus on the total $74.5 billion budget was the first time in many years that the legislature had a surplus.
Priorities for the county that passed included $4 million for the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area levee improvements, and another $4 million for water projects. “We did have another $2.5 million of that vetoed, but we did have an increase in beach restoration projects,” she said.
State aid to libraries went from $21.3 million to $24.7 million. Everglades restoration received $17 million and Florida Forever received $70 million. The Palm Beach County School District received $1.25 billion, Merlan said. “That in itself is a great thing,” she said.
Jeff Johnston reported on projects that were vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott, including $6.5 million to begin construction on the Palm Beach State College campus in Loxahatchee Groves. Scripps Research Institute’s nicotine addiction treatment project of $100,000 was vetoed, with Scott’s reason being that the state currently funds the Statewide Tobacco Prevention and Education program and an additional program was not necessary.
Funding of $1 million for the Palm Beach County Water Utility in the Glades was vetoed. “The governor said that not all projects in Palm Beach County and various locations throughout the state demonstrate an ability to contribute to a statewide investment,” Johnston said. “He also said he did not feel the program provides a significant return for the investment.”
Another item secured in the legislative budget that was ultimately vetoed was $75,000 for the Torry Island master plan on Lake Okeechobee in Belle Glade. “The reason given this year was that the governor could not find a clear mechanism for objective measuring and evaluating a return on the state’s investment,” Johnston said.
Bonlarron pointed out that they were able to get six items in the legislative budget for the Glades over the past three years, and the governor has vetoed five of them. “We clearly have to spend more time working with the governor’s office educating them on the importance of some of these projects out in the Glades,” Bonlarron said.
Commissioner Priscilla Taylor asked if Scott has ever been invited out to the Glades. Bonlarron said State Sen. Joseph Abruzzo (D-District 25) had invited him to come down and he agreed to tour some of the areas sometime in the next couple of months. Commission members would be included in the invitation, Bonlarron said.
Candice Ericks said the transportation and economic development budget amounted to about $11 billion, with the county transportation system receiving about $152 million and the Economic Community and Workforce Development Project equated to a total of $31.7 million. The Transportation Disadvantaged Program in Palm Beach County received a little over $3 million, she added.
Chris Petit reported on environmental issues, including SB 364, which provided incentives and consistency for alternative water supply projects, providing for a 37-year permit for alternative water supply projects developed after July 31.
The Numeric Nutrient Water Criteria Bill insures an agreement between the Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S Environmental Protection Agency to allow state rulemaking for numeric nutrient water quality criteria rather than the federal government.
There is also the Everglades Bill, which also enshrined an agreement between the state and the EPA regarding the development of environmental restoration projects that will benefit the Everglades. “It provides for $32 million in recurring funds, and the [South Florida] Water Management District in cooperation with the U.S. EPA the Department of Environmental Protection are moving forward on those projects,” he said.
Paul Lowell reported on the failure of the legislature to expand Medicaid.
“There really were different philosophies at play here,” Lowell said. “You had more of a pragmatic approach in the Senate and a deep-rooted ideological approach on the House side. I don’t think we had a very auspicious start when in late February the Governor declared, ‘We are going to expand Medicaid,’ and a few weeks later the House speaker definitively declaring, ‘We are not expanding Medicaid.’”
A proliferation of different plans added to the convolution, including one in the House that rejected federal funding, another in the Senate that also rejected federal funding but on a more limited scope, and a plan by State Sen. Joe Negron (R-District 32) that accepted the federal dollars and full expansion under a different name. The consistent theme was favoring private insurance, Lowell said.
“That’s what was philosophically driving those conversations,” he said. “The House and Senate disagreed, which led to the breakdown in communications, and a failure to expand Medicaid and the taking of federal dollars.”
He said the topic will come back in the next session, but Lowell said he expects the philosophical opposition in the House to grow.