2017-04-20 / Opinion

Stand your ground

Lawmakers in Tallahassee are half-way through the 60-day legislative session. The state’s annual business agenda is supposed to be completed by May 5, but don’t count on it. The House and Senate have not yet reached agreement on major legislative proposals pending; and the deadline is fast approaching to get the state’s future year budget approved. The final spending plan is jointly negotiated between the two chambers and must be blessed and signed by the governor before the beginning of the state’s fiscal year on July 1.

The annual rite of passing a balanced state budget is the one compulsory responsibility our legislature is bound by law to perform. Last year, they didn’t get it done during the regular session. The negotiations between the chambers to reach a compromise blew up. A $4 billion disagreement soured the deal. Lawmakers in the House bitterly opposed the idea of funding Medicaid expansion. They threw a hissy-fit and adjourned without so much as a fare-thee-well to the Senate.

The impasse forced the governor’s intercession and a special session to resolve the incomplete. The annual budget got done, but not without the taint of bad behavior flavoring the result. The only thing worse than a disgruntled legislator is an ingrown toenail. They made everybody suffer.

Medicaid expansion died for good, its demise a casualty of the infighting. Hundreds of thousands of poor and low-income Floridians were left to seek last-resort medical care in the emergency rooms of charity hospitals. Billions in federal revenue to subsidize Medicaid were turned away. The beneficiary most profiting from the lawmakers’ debacle was the Grim Reaper. He now collects his due from among the state’s most medically vulnerable citizens.

Optimism is in short supply things will go more smoothly this time. Although the amount of revenue on the table remains roughly the same, about $80 billion, there is a $2 billion chasm yawning between the House and Senate versions of the budgets proposed. Everyone, including the governor, wants it their way or the highway.

Bones of contention include reductions in state spending to promote tourism and down-sizing the millions in tax-funded subsidies paid to private businesses, the construction of a reservoir to curb and clean the Lake Okeechobee discharges creating havoc on South Florida’s Gulf and the Atlantic coasts, reforms to Florida’s higher education system and bills to proliferate guns in ever-more public spaces.

There also is talk of abolishing “home rule,” so the state can preempt local governments from regulating issues in their own backyards and there is a bill drafted with the assistance of Florida Power & Light that allows it to charge ratepayers for speculative energy ventures in Oklahoma. If approved, it conveniently reverses a prior ruling by Florida’s Public Service Commission that nixed the idea.

Among the bad ideas, first prize goes to a proposal to amend the infamous “stand your ground” law, so people accused of murderous intentions have “more leeway to claim self-defense and immunity.” It shifts the burden of proof from shooters to the people shot and left either dead or alive.

It gets worse: When it comes to protecting and conserving the state’s environment, never has a state been so ill-served as is Florida by its own state Legislature.

It’s been two decades since Florida first got serious about the environment. It started by funding programs to enable the state to purchase, conserve and protect in perpetuity Florida’s most environmentally sensitive lands and water resources. Florida Forever, established in 2000, received $300 million annually for its first nine years.

Along came the Great Recession. The program took a hit. Its funding plummeted to zero. Yet, despite Florida’s economy re-bounding, the Legislature continued to starve the program.

By 2014, Floridians voters had had enough. They approved by a 75 percent margin Amendment One to the state’s Constitution. It confronts the state Legislature’s hostility and challenges its parsimony toward the program’s goals, establishing a state-funded war chest for land acquisition and water conservation. The resources come from an existing source of revenue generated by the documentary stamp tax. It will generate about $10 billion in revenue over the next 20 years.

Lawmakers are brazenly ignoring the people’s mandate, instead budgeting and allocating the revenue for purposes inconsistent with the law. The misappropriations produce “savings” in general revenue to otherwise spend on a porker’s wish list. The cheat is nothing short of robbery of Amendment One money by legislative misappropriation. Once upon a time, lawmakers might have been tarred and feathered for such an egregious abuse of power. But alas, civil society has intervened.

At last word, the Legislature proposes to cut the budget of the Department of Environmental Protection by more than 25 percent and completely ax funding for Florida Forever. It’s an affront that demands a voter’s reply. No one is more entitled to defend Florida’s environment from the duplicity and avarice of its own lawmakers than Amendment One supporters. It’s time to stand your ground. ¦

— Leslie Lilly is a native Floridian whose professional career spans more than 25 years leading major philanthropic institutions in the South and Appalachia. She writes frequently on issues of politics, public policy, and philanthropy, earning national recognition for her leadership in the charitable sector. She resides with her family and pugs in Jupiter. Email her at llilly@floridaweekly.com and read past blog posts on Tumblr at llilly15. Tumblr.com.

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