Tuesday, April 16, 2019on
By Aimée Jeansonne Becka, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay “The wheels on the bus go round and round…” – American Folk Song For one of our final trips together as Leadership Tampa 2019, we embarked on an epic road trip to our state’s capital city, Tallahassee. After a long drive reminding us of the transportation challenges we face in our state, we finally arrived in Tallahassee and were greeted by an introduction from H. Lee Moffitt. He set the tone for our two-day session focused on the workings of our state government by noting that “Every session of Legislature is unique…they think they have a certain agenda, but [unexpected] events change things.” He shared examples of key events that have changed the focus of our governing body over the years, including the terrible Skyway bridge accident during his term as Speaker of the House, multiple hurricanes that created havoc in many communities over the years, tragic school shootings, and last year’s extensive red tide issues. He also shared some background around the creation of Moffitt Cancer Center. After his own battle with cancer and the death of his close friends due to the disease, Moffitt was disturbed by the limited options for cancer care in our state at that time. He used his political influence to drive the development of a better cancer treatment center in Florida and helped draft a bill to earmark proceeds from a state cigarette tax for the center’s construction. Today, Moffitt Cancer Center has become the #1 cancer center in the Southeast. Next, we heard from a panel of lobbyists. They shared their perspective that this year’s session has been less dramatic than in the past, with Governor DeSantis seeming to have an “even-handed” approach so far. The group shared opinions on many things impacting the legislative session, including the funding of Visit Florida, health care and importing drugs from Canada, guns in schools, legalization of marijuana, and the minimum age for vaping, as well as the pros and cons of term limits. Continuing one of our key themes from LT ’19 – transportation – we noted that very little on the agenda at the capitol seems to be focused on transportation initiatives. One comment I found surprising was that the state legislators have “an antithesis for local government” and that there are bills moving forward that would limit the ability for local government to legislate anything. It was advised that if we want to improve transportation, we need to elect people in Tallahassee who want to work with Hillsborough County leaders. The panel members highlighted the difficulty facing newly elected representatives, noting that while many run on platforms with specific agendas, “there are so many issues happening at the same time that take your attention once you get up here.” Two takeaways from the panel were the importance of “mutual toleration,” the idea that lawmakers may be adversaries, but shouldn’t be enemies, and “great respect for institutional forbearance,” the idea that the legislature has the power to create or change laws, but they should be cautious and remember they have the power to do much wrong. Next, we had the opportunity to tour both the Senate and House of Representatives chambers. We heard from Senator Darryl Rouson from District 19, one of the most geographically, economically and culturally diverse districts in our state. He shared that as a recovered addict himself, his priority projects include substance abuse as well as mental health. He has visited more than 40 drug treatment centers and met with community centers to better understand their needs, leading him to ask for $35 million for programs to address these areas. He is also focused on the arts, stating that no other Florida senator has more museums and centers for arts and entertainment. Funding for the arts was cut 90% last year, and he is focused on fighting for more support. Next, we heard from several House Representatives, Adam Hattersley (D-59), Jackie Toledo (R-60), Wengay Newton (D-70) and Fentrice Driskell (D-63). Their stated agendas for their specific districts varied, with everything from Veterans affairs, driving while texting, and smoking age limits, to energy and public education initiatives. The next morning, we were able to view a working session in the Senate chamber and our Leadership Tampa Class of 2019 had the honor to be publicly recognized from the Senate floor. We were able to see the formal legislative session process and witnessed some quick decisions on bills that had been previously debated, including a ban on child-like sex dolls, stronger penalties for harming police dogs and horses, and the Senate's proposed budget. Finally, we visited the historic Capitol building, restored to its 1902 appearance. It was a reminder of how different our state looked and how the early government functioned before Florida experienced massive population growth and development. “The wheels on the bus go round and round…” Luckily they did not come off. Although it seemed a bit touch-and-go during the ride home as we navigated one of our state’s most traveled interstate roadways. I’m sure I’m not alone in recognizing that transportation improvements should become a little higher on the radar for our state legislature in the future.