Note to readers: Naples resident Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, currently on the path to be the next President of the Florida Senate, met with the Southwest Florida Community Advisory Board this week for an hour to talk about where she stands on key issues in the state. Community Advisory Board member Sandy Parker captured the key takeaways from the discussion. Parker is a champion for keeping voters informed with a focus on government in Southwest Florida and around the state. This has been edited for length and clarity:
What would you say were the highlights of the 2021 legislative session?
In my opinion, this past session was the most challenging yet the most productive of my 11 years in the legislature. We began thinking we’d be $6 billion in the hole due to COVID and by the end, for a number of reasons, we passed a $101 billion budget and were able to put $6 billion into reserves.
We passed the COVID liability bills so that unless a business or health care provider was negligent, they would not be held liable if someone contracted COVID in their facility. We also passed huge reform to the child welfare system, just a game-changer for our at-risk children. And in a special session, we passed the gaming compact, another game-changer.
What issues are most on the minds of your constituents?
Without doubt, it’s water: water quality, water quantity, blue-green algae, red tide, what the legislature is doing to protect us.
Over the last several years, we have put tremendous resources into the projects that have been on the books for many years.
With respect to the blue-green algae, the three big challenges we have to address are discharges from Lake Okeechobee, fertilizer runoff, and septic systems. And the legislature has been looking at all of them.
We’ve been trying to work with the federal Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the number of discharges from Lake Okeechobee. We’re finishing up the reservoirs that have been in the plans for many years to the east, west and south of the Lake, to keep dirty water from going into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers. And most importantly, something we just did this year was to support the deep well injections north of Lake Okeechobee — to store and clean water before it goes into the lake.
The last component is, how do we address the septic systems that are everywhere. As our population increases, many of the homes are being built where there are no sewage treatment plants. We need a comprehensive statewide plan to remove the over 2 million septic tanks embedded in Florida’s underground.
Those are the kind of things we’re talking about putting significant dollars in. It took 100 years to get into this terrible position, and we’re not going to fix it overnight, but we’re not ignoring the problem.
A vacation rental bill (SB 522) didn’t pass. What’s coming next to make it easier on landlords and renters in Florida?
This is a bill I was heavily involved with this past session. The bill that was filed was a recast of a bill that was filed last year that I found wholly deficient. It didn’t work. In the end, I drafted the bill that I would like to see passed, but it took so long, it was the end of session.
I hope a bill will be introduced next year or if not, the year after, in which the state would regulate, license and make sure the sales taxes are collected. That being said, I think local governments should have the right to know who they are, to register them, so they know what’s going on in their area.
We have to do something, because there are a lot of unregulated rentals, neighbors don’t know who they are, and some have become places for sex trafficking and the like. We need to know what’s going on in our communities.
How do you see the tradeoff between preemption and local/home rule?
Some local governments (not Naples, not Collier County, not Lee County, by and large) pass “stupid ordinances” that are unenforceable and have no science behind them. An example is the ban on sunscreen products in the Keys. When that happens, affected businesses have two options. They can file a lawsuit, that takes 6-8 years to resolve and is expensive, or they can present their case to the legislature, which preempts whatever it is, statewide. I don’t like it, but I understand why we do it.
My staff is working this summer on an alternative, expedited process, like what we have today with landlord/tenant disputes. If a local government passes a problematic ordinance, there would be a quick hearing and the ordinance would not be implemented until the court determined it was valid. Take the legislature out of it completely. And importantly, the loser would pay the court fees, to discourage frivolous suits. I think it’s a good concept and I hope it will work.
COVID exposed chronic conditions and disparities in our health care system. What are you thinking of as an alternative to Medicaid expansion to address these problems in our community?
We do cover, through Medicaid, children and families with children. The elderly are covered by Medicare. The missing group are the individuals in their 40s who either don’t have insurance, can’t afford insurance, or miss the qualification for insurance.
When I was first elected to the legislature, we basically shut down our local health department clinics. There were probably a lot of good reasons for it at the time; I was new and didn’t understand the ramifications. I think we threw the baby out with the bath water rather than finding a way to get those clinics working the way they should.
We need to start looking at health clinics to provide primary care for those indigents who can’t get it anywhere else — as opposed to them going to the emergency room.
We have a real problem in our rural areas, we don’t have enough physicians.
We have to take a different look at healthcare delivery in our state. Honestly, I think our whole healthcare system needs to be revamped completely, which is one of the things in my long-range planning ideas.
Mental health is a huge challenge. Because we know the teachers aren’t mental health counselors, they don’t have the tools, plus they have the classrooms that they have to be managing.
Three years ago, when I was chair of the K-12 Appropriations Committee, I convened a group of superintendents from around the state and asked them what their biggest challenges were. And it was unanimous: mental health. They said they need mental health providers in our schools.
So, we asked our staff what it would cost to do that — and it was $700 million.
So, we started slowly with legislation and a budget for every school district to have access to mental health funding if they entered into an agreement with a local provider of services. We started with $79 million. This past year, the amount has gone up, and I think every year, there will be more and more funding, especially when we see the effects on the students who have been home this past year. We’re getting there. That’s also on my to-do list.
What do you think about the cancellation of the M-CORES project this session? And what do you think of the state of Florida’s infrastructure?
Even though the M-CORES concept was repealed, we’re still going to build the extension of the Suncoast Parkway up to the Georgia line. And discussions are still underway about the best way to provide access from the north of the state to the south of the state.
With regard to our infrastructure, our roads are probably some of the best in the country. A lot of that is due to our weather, no ice storms, etc. But I have heard from all over that our Department of Transportation is one of the best run agencies in the country.
We have to face challenges as our state grows, to accommodate that growth and do it environmentally, because that’s generally the downside of any of these projects.
Meanwhile, we’ve done a lot. We expanded the ports of Miami and Jacksonville, so big tankers coming from all over the world can dock here. And even though the airports are federal, I’m proud of the expansion of the Hendry County airport. Flowers from South America will be coming there, which will be a huge benefit to Hendry and to the state of Florida.
Are you aware that some residents are upset about the noise from the Naples Airport?
I’ve lived in Naples for 42 years, and for 42 years, there’s been talk about how the airport is so noisy. It’s true. I live in Old Naples and the planes go right over my house. You get used to it.
I know the airport is going to do a study, as they have been I think every 5 years, on the planes. They have voluntary open and closing times for the planes. The good news is most of the newer planes are far less noisy than the older planes, and there are less and less of the noisy planes coming in.
I get crazy with the sound, but think about the money that they spend that comes to our charities, so, you know…
Tell us about the child welfare bill you mentioned.
Many of the newspapers have done a yeoman’s job reporting the deficiencies in the child welfare system, children in foster care that have been abused, and the like. Children have been falling through the cracks.
So, we did some common-sense reforms, for example, every child going through the system has to have something called a “face sheet” that follows them, that has all the placements, all the critical components of the child’s life so that at a glance, anyone can see where they’ve been, what they’re doing.
We put a lot more money in the system to hire more investigators, more workers to lessen the number of children that each individual person is responsible for. We’ve made it easier for some faith-based organizations to help manage some of these families, to help out. More involvement with the families. We made some changes to give foster kids a lot more benefits as they age out of the system.
It was a pretty comprehensive bill that passed unanimously. We have a lot of bills like that, that pass unanimously, which, because they’re unanimous, are not newsworthy, which is sad.
What are your views on the state’s new rule against teaching critical race theory?
When the Department of Education came out with the amendment to the rule 6A, just last week, I’d been so involved in so many other things, it was something that had not been on my radar screen. First thing I did when I began getting calls from people is I went and looked at the rule. And I think it behooves all of us to do that. And I have a copy here… (See Required Instruction Planning and Reporting, Publish Date 6/14/21 https://www.flrules.org/gateway/ruleNo.asp?id=6A-1.094124.)
Before this rule change, the rule said, regarding curriculum, “Instruction on the required topics must be factual and objective, and may not suppress or distort significant historical events, such as the Holocaust, and may not define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” That has been the rule for years.
This is what they added, after the words “such as the Holocaust”: “slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and the contributions of women, African American and Hispanic people to our country,” etc., etc., and then they added about “Critical Race Theory.”
So, as I read the four corners of this document, it doesn’t do anything like what both sides say it does. It basically just expanded what was in the current rule.
It does preclude the teaching of Critical Race Theory, which there are many definitions of, but the rule defines it as “the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems” — and this is key — “in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.”
Well of course, that is not what any teacher or anybody — I hope — is teaching.
So, I believe the bottom line with this whole thing is that the teachers and the institutions should be teaching the facts, and whatever their opinions are, it’s not relevant. And that’s exactly what the rule was before, and they just added a whole bunch of new things in addition to the Holocaust. It’s so polarizing and it really shouldn’t be.
Sparker’s Soapbox is a blog, website and e-newsletter founded and written by Sandy Parker to help herself and others be more informed voters. Its mission is facilitating and encouraging informed voting in Collier County and throughout Florida. Parker is a member of the Southwest Florida Community Advisory board, which is comprised of five citizens from Lee and Collier counties working with the Naples Daily News and The News-Press on issues impacting Southwest Florida.
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