Alachua County’s representation in Tallahassee voiced agreement on Wednesday night about issues like the opioid crisis and pay equity, but did not find common ground on Florida’s expanded stand your ground law and the state budget process.
At a Santa Fe College event, three state legislators representing Alachua County recapped the 2017 Florida session: state Rep. Chuck Clemons (R-District 21), state Sen. Keith Perry (R-District 8), and state Rep. Clovis Watson (D-District 20). About 100 people attended with another 200 watching online.
The evening opened with a question about the budget, which caused Watson to express frustration with the process of this year’s session:
“Once you get to Tallahassee, you really learn how things work. They don’t work as swift as we would like. This session has been quite interesting, to say the least. Our budgeting process is — at best — duplicative. We’ve had many issues between the governor and the speaker, the speaker and the senate president. It has dwarfed all of the issues we needed to address.”
The pending budget
Gov. Rick Scott received the lawmakers’ approved budget on Wednesday, and he now has the option to veto some or all of it. Included in this year’s budget is a $27 million cut to the state’s community colleges. Clemons is an administrator at Santa Fe College.
“It will have a negligible or no impact on the students at Santa Fe College,” he said.
Watson agreed, adding a caveat: “It will be negligible for Santa Fe, but it will affect other institutions. If we want to better prepare our young people… we have to look at other ways to cut the budget but not in education.”
With thousands of deaths annually from the opioid crisis in Florida, lawmakers said they’re taking the topic seriously.
Perry: “We did take fentanyl and carfentanyl and move them into a Schedule 1 (classification). Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin, and carfentanyl is 100 times more powerful than fentanyl.”
Clemons: “The cost of the opioids are coming down. If not a member of your family, there’s someone that’s close to you that has opioid addiction. You can admit this or not admit this, but I’ve studied it enough to know that if you ask the medical professionals at the emergency room, and the folks showing up every night at North Florida and Shands (hospitals) with the low-cost street drugs that are opioids — we’ve gotta do something to address that.”
A bill that would have added anti-discrimination protections for LGBT individuals to state law did not pass. Clemons and Watson spoke personally about those protections.
Clemons: “I have members of my family who are in same-sex marriages. You love people because you love people, because they’re lovable. You love people because that’s the right thing to do.”
Watson: “I am against discrimination in any form, and I think we should certainly pass bills in the state of Florida to make sure we do not discriminate against individuals and make people feel uncomfortable because of who they are.”
Perry said he didn’t read the Senate’s version of the bill.
“There’s almost 3,000 bills that get filed every single year in Tallahassee… the only bills that I did were bills that were going to come before a committee I had to vote on or debate. I know this has been around for a while. I’m not even sure who the sponsors were of those bills. I think the state certainly has a role to play in how we choose to protect individuals and people. I’ll be glad to look at that bill if it comes up next year. I assume it might.”
Perry did support a bill giving public school students the chance to express religious beliefs in schools.
“You can decide whether you want to discriminate or not discriminate or believe or not believe, but when the government has the business of saying we’re going to approve what you say, pre-approve, look that over, decide what’s acceptable — that’s just a wrong direction. I hope people understand the fundamental issues at stake when we talk about government-controlled speech.”
Male-female pay equity
The event’s moderator relayed a loaded question from the audience: “Do you believe it is fair for women to not have equal pay?”
Watson: “As men in society, we’re so accustomed to the pay scale and how we’ve done things. Women have come into the job market… and now we’re speaking in 2017 as to a woman making the same as a man doing the exact same job. It should not even be a discussion. I co-sponsored a bill and have for several years. I will continue to do it.”
Clemons: “I didn’t know in the job descriptions that when they advertise for xyz job that if you get it, for a man, it’s this. For a woman, it’s this… What we can do to help right those wrongs is (equalizing) one job posting and one job hiring at a time.”
Perry: “I think you’re going to see some changes. I would bet in the next 20 years that females make more than men for the same job.”
Stand your ground
An issue of disagreement remains Florida’s controversial stand your ground law, which was expanded this year to shift the burden of proof from a defendant to the prosecutor.
Clemons: “The state must prove that if you’re going to be charged with a capital crime like murder, the state must have the compelling evidence. It must not be up to you (to prove otherwise).”
Watson, a former police officer, doesn’t like the original law nor its expansion: “This law was enacted in 2005. Before 2005, we did quite well with self-defense… I think we should have to pause before we take an individual’s life with the perception of fear. It’s not the same thing as fear.”
Perry: “If you really think about a judicial system, it is up to the state to prove you did it — except for stand your ground, where it’s up to you to prove you didn’t — that’s the difference… No other criminal charges work that way. If you think about the poor citizens in our state who can only afford the public defenders, and the richest who can afford the best attorneys, the way it was before was pretty bad for the poor. That’s why I supported that.”
Process and numbers
Perry has continued to find it difficult to push the region’s priorities in Tallahassee when they don’t align with larger delegations: “You’re looking at your legislative caucus. Miami-Dade has 24 members in theirs. It’s a numbers game in Tallahassee, but we did fight. We got $50 million total for springs restoration in this area.”
Clemons: “I went to Tallahassee and had a little writing on my hand, so that everywhere I went, I would turn and look down at it — ‘springs restoration.’ I learned to swim in Poe Springs when I was six years old and we only had 6 million people here then, and now we have 20 million, and we’re going to have six million more. Every piece of legislation, I would check and make sure springs restoration was the one I would camp out in some (committee) chairman’s office until we got that.”