As Tallahassee gears up for the annual 60-day Legislative Session, now a month away, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce outlines its agenda for 2017.
Among the leading matters for the Chamber are transportation, the unification of PSTA-HART, tourism, and state regulation of vehicles for hire — including a bill (SB 340) from state Sen. Jeff Brandes setting rules to promote the growth of transportation network companies (TNC) such as Uber and Lyft.
However, at the top of the wish list is a call for greater diversity, with the Chamber supporting the Florida Competitive Workforce Act (HB 623 and SB 666) two measures would seek to create statewide anti-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. Business leaders say the Act will help ensure St. Petersburg and Florida attract the best, brightest and most creative workers.
Among economic development issues, St. Petersburg business leaders are asking lawmakers to approve $3 million for the Pinellas Center for Innovation for a series of improvements in addition to the creation of a state-of-the-art 40,000-square-foot enterprise incubator facility. For the growing Warehouse Arts District, the Chamber asks $500,000 in state funds go to renovate six storage buildings, which would seek to revitalize nearly 3 acres of blighted property.
The Chamber also wants to keep Enterprise Florida – as is or with some modifications — the state’s quasi-governmental business recruitment agency, as well as VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism arm. For every dollar spent through VISIT FLORIDA, the Chamber says, returns $3.20 in tax revenue for Pinellas County – tourism being one of the area’s most critical sectors.
Nevertheless, Enterprise Florida is in the crosshairs of state legislators, including House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who has recently referred to such state-run incentive programs as “de facto socialism.” Gov. Rick Scott, a staunch proponent of Enterprise Florida, sees it as a valuable tool in attracting business growth and jobs to the state.
As for education, the Chamber gives thumbs-up to several local proposals, including $10 million For the St. Petersburg College Student Success Center, and $2.5 million for “STEM academic programming” to prepare the region’s workforce for increasing demands in health care, science, and technology. Also on the list is early learning performance and voluntary prekindergarten (VPK), which the Chamber asks to be boosted by at least $50 per student.
The University of South Florida St. Petersburg gets a pair of requests, with $1.5 million for the USF College of Marine Science Coastal Ocean Initiative to purchase state-of-the-art equipment and provide three years of operations and maintenance costs. There’s also $2 million for the USF College of Marine Science Biogeochemical Laboratory Renovation, to “enhance long-term studies of the Gulf of Mexico oil spills.” Investments in these “shovel ready” projects would have an impact beyond the school campus, the Chamber says, by improving the region’s ability to compete for federal research funds to the benefit of the St. Petersburg “marine science cluster,” which provides a regional economic impact estimated at $100 million.
Trauma centers once again on the legislative radar in 2017. The Chamber is calling for legislators to reject a proposal for the Florida Department of Health to change the language to permit a “minimum” number of trauma centers a given district.
Decrying the “fragmented and underfunded” behavioral health system, chamber leaders asks Tallahassee to continue reforms passed in 2016, and uses much money is available in the state budget to expand treatment for mental health and substance abuse. They also support protecting the $450 million lawmakers have used to offset the reduction in the federal Low Income Pool, which is “vital that the existing general revenue be maintained in the Medicaid budget.”
St. Petersburg’s infrastructure woes – highlighted by last year’s city wastewater leaks into Tampa Bay – should get some attention in the 2017-18 budget.
The Chamber asks lawmakers to pass the funding request from South Pasadena Republican Kathleen Peters (HB 2005) for $3 million to smoke test the city’s sewer pipes for leaks, remodel lateral clean-outs with removable plugs, and install and seal manholes.
Flood management, another significant issue facing both St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, is the subject of two bills (SB 112 and HB 613) that will have the Division of Emergency Management set up a matching grant program to provide up to $50 million for flood risk reduction policies and projects.
Tax cuts, another big topic for Scott in 2017, is also on the chamber agenda, with support for the governor’s call to reduce taxes on commercial rent. The group is requesting additional reform of the state’s workers’ compensation system to address rising cost of attorney’s fees and rate increases without jeopardizing employee access to workers’ comp.
The chamber also opposes any efforts to prohibit a professional sports franchise from leasing public land to build stadiums or renovate stadiums already on public lands. The legislature is also looking at two bills (HB 77/ SB 122) which require any public land use to build a stadium be to be sold at fair market value.