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Commentary: Recapping a disappointing 2017 Florida legislative session

By Mike Reagen, Ph.D., and Dave Trecker, Ph.D.

City Desk Naples-Marco Island, Florida
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Collier Citizens CouncilCommentary: Recapping a disappointing 2017 Florida legislative session

By Mike Reagen, Ph.D., and Dave Trecker, Ph.D.

The 2017 Florida legislative session is now history, and the heavily Republican House and Senate succeeded mostly in canceling each other out. Neither chamber found much common ground with the Republican governor.

Mike Reagen Ph.D.

Mike Reagen, Ph. D.


Dave Trecker, Ph.D.

 Dave Trecker, Ph.D.

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As Yogi Berra once said, “It was hard to have a conversation with anyone; there were too many people talking.”

Despite good work by our local delegation, the session was a failure by almost every measure. We give it the benefit of the doubt and award it a grade of D.

True, a budget was passed essentially on time and a few tax cuts were made, but they will do little to promote growth. The governor’s priorities of recruiting new businesses and promoting tourism were rejected.

Here’s a quick summary of the wreckage.

+ Education made modest gains, but the $24 per student spending increase is hardly enough to improve Florida’s ranking of 41st among states. Funds for the Best and Brightest teacher bonus program were slightly increased, as was money for student aid, including the Bright Futures merit scholarship program. And state schools picked up $240 million for construction projects.

+ Mental health didn’t fare as well. The 2017 session did little to improve Florida’s abysmal ranking of 49th among states for mental health and addiction funding, apparently taking little heed of Gov. Rick Scott’s declaration of an opioid emergency. Bills stiffening penalties for heroin and fentanyl trafficking were passed, but there was virtually no increase in treatment spending. Our jails remain the primary facilities for housing the addicted and the mentally ill, a disgrace.

+ Fracking legislation again got a pass, the third session in a row where nothing was done. Florida remains without any regulations on hydraulic fracturing, acidizing, surfactant sweeps, gel treatments or other oil well stimulation. The sensible approach of a moratorium while studying the impact on nearby aquifers was ignored -- again.

+ Medical marijuana was another victim of indecision. Unable to agree on the number of pot shops each licensee could operate, the Legislature simply did nothing. Now it’s up to the Department of Health to make the tough calls -- smokable versus edible weed, pot shop restrictions, amounts of marijuana a patient can stockpile, the waiting period before treatment, and more. The whole thing has become a slapstick comedy. While the lawmakers, in a rare show of agreement, opposed smokable pot, some dispensaries are already selling it! And -- who would have thought it -- a food fight has broken out between John Morgan and Ben Pollara, the main backers of medical marijuana, each blaming the other for Tallahassee’s failure to act. Going forward, the only sure thing is a raft of lawsuits.

+ Gambling legislation, or rather lack of it, completes the do-nothing scorecard. After years of bickering, Tallahassee folded on the dicey issue of allowing pari-mutuel facilities to add slot machines. The impasse shorts the state of gaming revenues and leaves the entire question of Florida gambling in limbo. As a result, the courts will do what the Legislature couldn’t -- decide what kind of gambling is allowed and where.

+ Water legislation, at least some, was passed, a rare step in the losing fight against pollution. Some $800 million in bonding was approved to build a second reservoir on state land south of Lake Okeechobee. That this is considered a triumph shows how hopeless the situation has become.

1. The project is dependent on matching federal money, no certainty.

2. Funding to shore up the dike around the lake was rejected.

3. Septic tank pollution, another part of the problem, was ignored.

Worse, the reservoir system has no provision for cleaning up the dirty water before it’s discharged into the Everglades. And, incredibly, the lawmakers did nothing to curb fertilizer runoff from the sugar cane fields, the main cause of pollution in the first place.

Is this assessment too harsh? Maybe Tallahassee deserves better than a D. But we find little to cheer about. This was a very disappointing session.

Reagen, Ph.D., and Trecker, Ph.D., are members of the Collier Citizens Council, a coalition of civic leaders.

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