Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis discusses university tuition rates, water quality and gun reform at the state Capitol’s series of legislative press conferences. (Matthew Arrojas/WUFT News)
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Florida’s Political Leaders Discuss 2019 Session Priorities

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday endorsed a continued freeze on tuition rates at Florida’s public universities.

Keeping the tuition at a stable price has been good for Florida, DeSantis said, and he has no plans to change existing policy.

“I think it’s caused universities to make sure they’re getting the most out of their dollar,” DeSantis told reporters. “It’s been a huge relief to a lot of families.”

Florida is one of only five states to see a decrease in overall tuition prices in the past five years, according to College Board. Florida specifically has seen a 7 percent decrease in tuition rates since 2014 — the second highest decrease in state tuition behind Washington.

“Right now, we have a top-10 university that you can go to without being in debt for the rest of your life,” DeSantis said, citing the successes of the University of Florida, which is tied for eighth on U.S. News & World Report’s list of the top 10 public universities.

While DeSantis praised this low cost, freezing tuition has proven to put additional pressure on schools when public funding is already subsidized by the state.

Towering above Tallahassee on the 22nd floor of the Florida Capitol in press conferences by top legislative and executive officials, DeSantis also discussed improving water quality and tightening gun reform among other statewide issues he plans to tackle throughout his term.

After Tuesday’s announcement that the budget will include $625 million for water projects, DeSantis said he aims to clear out the South Florida Water Management District board members and start fresh.

As of Wednesday morning, 7 of the 9 board members have either tendered their resignation or expressed their intent to do so, DeSantis said.

“Water quality in Florida was something that needed to be addressed,” DeSantis said. “This needed to be dealt with.”

Following a discussion on limiting water discharge and ensuring that Lake Okeechobee is cleaned, DeSantis boasted the new appointment of Hispanic justices, a historic moment in Florida law, he claimed.  The color of a judge’s skin doesn’t matter when the law is meticulously considered and followed.

“If you’re right on the law, you’ll win. If you’re not, you won’t,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis believes this is the first time in Florida’s history that multiple Hispanics have been appointed to serve on the Supreme Court at the same time, he said.

However, not every legislator agrees on the diversity of the state Supreme Court. Kionne McGhee, Democratic House Leader, called for increased representation of African Americans sitting on the Supreme Court.

“I do believe there are some people out there who are agents of the system who would prefer to see one race above another with a higher representation in that system,” McGhee said. “What we’re seeing without fair representation in the Supreme Court for African Americans, it should be concerning. ”

DeSantis also discussed the gun permitting process and the importance of stricter background checks following the Tuesday arrest of UCF student Max Chambers for possession of a modified AR-15 as reported by the Orlando Sentinel.

According to UCF policy, the school “prohibits weapons from being possessed or stored on university property, but allows for them to be kept in a private vehicle as long as they are ‘not readily accessible for immediate use.’”

Chambers, who had no permit for the AR-15, was arrested by campus police.

“I don’t think I endorse a specific piece of legislation,” DeSantis told the press. “The permit is much less important than the background check.”

Agriculture Commissioner

Florida’s new agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried, said she is close to announcing a new cannabis director in her agency who will help regulate the state’s medical marijuana industry.

Fried said she had interviewed a handful of candidates but wouldn’t disclose even who were among her top three choices, much less who might actually the job.

She also proposed a new state program to provide free breakfast to every public school student – delivered to their desk each morning to reduce any stigma from visiting the cafeteria among classmates who qualify for free or reduced meals – but acknowledged she did not know how much this would cost taxpayers.

She said a new advisory committee would study new farming techniques used in Israel, Canada and other countries that might be adopted in Florida.

Speaker of the House

Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva spelled out the two priorities for the House this session: healthcare and education issues.

He emphasized fighting monopolies in healthcare in order to lower overall costs, rather than expanding Medicaid.

“Medicaid expansion is the worst of all bandaids,” he said. “As a result, we’ve got our hands in a very serious situation, 48 percent of our budget this year will be healthcare.”

Florida needs legislation that will allow the state to investigate price gouging and determine the most affordable ways to treat patients, Oliva said.

“The price of something routine, like gallbladder surgery, continues to go up more than some sort of surgical procedure,” he said.

Allowing competition will solve it, he said.
Oliva noted the need to specify higher education funding to “performance” costs rather than general funding to grow institutions to cut costs and lessen student loans.

“When they focus on growth, students become a balance sheet item,” he said.

Senate President

Florida Senate President Bill Galvano began his press briefing by laying out his three biggest priorities for the upcoming legislative session: Highway infrastructure, school safety and gambling.

Galvano wants the infrastructure and securities committee to put forward plans to extend the Suncoast Parkway to Georgia — a plan similar to the Coastal Connector — and another project that would run from Polk County to Collier County. The plans have been brought up in the past and faced opposition from advocacy groups like the Sierra Club, but he said he believes these projects would benefit rural communities and are worth pursuing.

“I believe it is a good idea, and we need to have this infrastructure, but we also need to have access to our rural communities,” he said.

The Senate president said his hope is to leave this session with a meaningful plan, timeline and funding figure for the projects. He added that he is not opposed to using bonding to fund the projects.

The next priority Galvano outlined was school safety. A committee formed during the 2018 session in the wake of the Parkland school shooting recently came out with a list of recommendations, and Galvano said the Senate will consider all of them.

“We intend to take those recommendations seriously,” he said.

Galvano also spoke of the Seminole Compact and gaming in the state. Specifically, he said he thinks there is an opportunity for sports gambling in Florida.

“It’s an activity that’s occurring — just not regulated — and we’re not collecting or sharing revenue from the activity,” he said.

Galvano briefly spoke about environmental problems, with an emphasis on red tide outbreaks in the Gulf Coast. He said he still needs more scientific data in order to come up with a solution to the problem.

“It’s time to collaborate to look for solutions,” he said.

The Minority Party Leaders

Healthcare is the top priority for the Democratic leaders in both chambers.

Both state Rep. Kionne McGhee and state Sen. Audrey Gibson named Medicaid expansion among the Democratic caucus’ focal points this legislative session.

McGhee, who also addressed felony disenfranchisement and affordable housing, disapproved of the free market approach to healthcare that Oliva advocated. The South Florida Democrat instead argued the government has limited its involvement in healthcare for too long and called Oliva’s stance an “ideological tantrum.”

Strong opposition from DeSantis as well as House and Senate Republicans like Oliva will make it difficult for any such legislation to stay afloat.

While Republican leaders zeroed in on increasing infrastructure, Gibson urged them not to forget about other issues plaguing Florida, including water quality and the effects of climate change.

About Max Chesnes

Max is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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