The budget-bleeding hurricane season and the drive to address the ongoing opioid epidemic were main topics of Monday’s Politics and Pancakes event put on by the Manatee Chamber of Commerce.
It was an opportunity for about 100 people to listen to their local delegates discuss priorities of the next legislative session and ask questions. One state senator and four state representatives were present, with state Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the incoming Senate president, absent because of a scheduling conflict with his law office.
“Overall, it’s going to be a challenging budgetary year,” said Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Sarasota, to the crowd at the IMG Academy Golf Club. “A lot of it’s going to be driven by Hurricane Irma.”
Gonzalez said the House indicated it would put more consideration on funding projects related to hurricane relief and fortification. One hurricane-related project for Manatee County includes $750,000 to go toward rebuilding the destroyed Anna Maria City Pier, sponsored by Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton. Boyd also is seeking $3 million to improve special needs shelters.
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It won’t be just Irma, which is expected to cost Manatee County millions of dollars. Hurricane Maria hit hard Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands, leading to a surge in thousands to relocate to Florida, said Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota. That influx of citizens, Steube added, would have an impact on the state’s education and Medicaid budgets.
“I would just encourage you in the community, if you have projects, be cognizant of the fact that it’s going to be a tough budget year, and if you have projects in the budget it’s going to be challenging,” he said.
Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, noted that having Bradenton legislators Galvano and Boyd in leadership positions could be an advantage.
“Manatee County is in a unique position this year because it’s so rare to have leadership on both sides, both in the House and the Senate,” he said. “Relative, we should do really well compared to the other counties.”
The opioid epidemic is posing another challenge for legislators to find the most effective ways to combat it. Manatee County had an increase of drug deaths per capita related to fentanyl from 2015 to 2016, and was one of four counties to have the highest rates of death related to cocaine.
In July, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill ,sponsored by Boyd and Steube, that increased penalties for fentanyl traffickers and allowed murder charges to be brought against someone accused of providing another with a deadly amount of a controlled substance. Scott also indicated he would be proposing $53 million in the next budget to target the crisis.
This year, targeted bills would be “multi-faceted,” Boyd said.
The Bradenton representative filed legislation in October requiring continuing education for practitioners and creating standards to treat “acute pain,” defined in the bill as “the normal, predicted, physiological and time-limited response to an adverse chemical, thermal or mechanical stimulus associated with surgery, trauma or acute illness.”
“It’s kind of like whack-a-mole. We kind of sadly refer to it as that,” Boyd said. “You bat down one drug problem and another one pops up. That’s just the insidious nature of the drug problem in our world and our country.”
Gonzalez was critical of Boyd’s bill, saying regulating “good faith physicians” was a “bad idea.” But he was supportive of expanding a needle exchange program that started at the University of Miami last year.
“In light of this being essentially a crisis state that we’re in, I think the time to just pick principle over pragmatism and reality is quickly coming to an end,” he said.
During a question and answer session, spotlights were shined on some of the legislators’ more controversial bills. Steube’s tree-trimming bill was pointed out, to which he had a passionate response to what he called “crazy ordinances.”
He shared anecdotes of him representing a client who was fined thousands of dollars for cutting down a 28-inch oak tree without having the permit issued, to having an inspector tell him which oak trees he could and could not cut down on his 5.3-acre property.
“OK, so pine trees lives don’t matter and oak trees lives do matter,” Steube said, riffing off of the Black Lives Matter movement, as the room burst with laughter.
But the senator was zealous about his bill that sought “prohibiting certain local governmental actions relating to the trimming or removal of trees or timber.”
“I believe that you on your own private property, you have a constitutional right to your private property, and if you wanna cut down a flippin’ tree, you should be able to cut down a tree on your private property,” he said.
Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, also addressed his amendment to a bill that would make it a second-degree misdemeanor if an unlocked car with the keys inside is stolen by a minor.
Pinellas County, part of which Newton represents, has been facing an epidemic of its own: juvenile car theft. In August, three teenagers died after they sped through a red light and crashed the car they had stolen. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri at the time said that the “juvenile justice system is not working.”
One way Newton thought to address the issue was to prevent crimes of opportunity in the first place.
“But for those keys those young juveniles wouldn’t be flying through these streets with a two-ton vehicle, keep creating chaos and mayhem, even running our law enforcement, killing one of you, damaging your property,” he said.
Several emails have come his way since he submitted the proposed bill on Dec. 6.
“It’s a great conversation,” he said. “It’s a conversation we need to have.”