Leon County’s state legislators have a lot on their plate this Session.
Public education, mental health, the environment and hotel regulations were the recurring, hot subjects of the Leon County delegation meeting Monday night where more than 30 people spoke to state lawmakers in the County Commission chamber.
The delegation — comprised of Democrats Sen. Bill Montford and Reps. Loranne Ausley and Ramon Alexander, and Republican Rep. Halsey Beshears who was absent from the meeting — is tasked with representing the capital city and the surrounding areas in the Legislature.
Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna was one of the first speakers to have a substantial, straightforward request for the delegation.
“We need you to protect our public schools,” he said, citing the push to expand charter school voucher programs across the state as an attack on public education.
“Anyway they can look to expand voucher programs — that’s a huge concern for us,” Hanna said. His woes were later echoed by a Leon County teacher, followed by a mother of three students in the county and Scott Mazur, president of the Leon Classroom Teachers Association.
Then came the subject of fracking and its potential threat to Florida. Representatives from Rethink Energy Florida and Floridians Against Fracking elaborated on the dangers associated with fracking and thanked Montford for co-introducing the Senate’s fracking ban (SB 462) with Republican Sen. Dana Young of Tampa.
Montford later told Florida Politics that Florida “should be the last state that engages in fracking” because of its unique aquifer system. He said the ban required state action, otherwise, one county’s decision to frack could impact the entire state, should contamination of water arise.
“Water knows no boundaries,” he explained.
Along with fracking, some public testimony focused on Florida Forever, the state’s land conservation fund that was severely cut in the 2017 Session. So far this year, Republican Sen. Rob Bradley has requested $100 million for the fund and Gov. Rick Scott has asked for $50 million in his annual budget request.
One Leon resident Monday night said those requests are “an improvement over nothing” and work could still be done to ensure that funding is secured.
An hotelier, accompanied by a group of hotel representatives, also spoke to the delegation, detailing the disparities in how hotels and Airbnb rentals are regulated. He asked the delegation to consider modifying regulations to “level the playing field” for hotels competing with rentals.
Beforehand, Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor said that hotels are being undermined by regulations in Tallahassee, which could potentially mean “taking food off the table” for those employed by the hotel industry.
Proctor had also blatantly addressed mental health issues in front of the delegation.
“Mental health, mental health, mental health and mental health,” Proctor said, noting that Tallahassee does not have a mental health facility that could house patients for more than a few days.
Claudia Blackburn, health officer for the state Department of Health in Leon County, identified mental health as problem discovered through community assessment and surveying.
“Mental health came up as a recurring issue. Everybody that we talked to, it’s just a huge issue in our community,” Blackburn said.
After discussing mental health, Proctor acknowledged what could’ve been dubbed the ‘elephant in the room’ of the delegation’s meeting. Specifically, Tallahassee’s high rate of violent crime and murder.
With the exception of Proctor, Leon’s violent crime problem was something no one seemed to want to acknowledge — qualified or not.
Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil didn’t so much as mention the issue, nor was he prompted to do so by the delegation. McNeil instead presented the delegation with the Florida Sheriff’s Association’s legislative priorities. At the top of the list of those issues, McNeil said, is texting while driving.
It was Commissioner Proctor, who the Tallahassee Democrat reported earlier this month warned the capital city could move as a result of violent crime, that took the opportunity to speak to the delegation on the pressing issue.
Leon County surpassed a yearly murder record earlier this October with a total of 18 murders.
Proctor cited a string of four separate shootings that occurred earlier this month in Tallahassee as something that should qualify as a state emergency, given that Gov. Rick Scott declared an emergency for neo-Nazi Richard Spencer’s event in Gainesville.
Proctor said people “are being killed less than a mile from your office, less than a mile from my office, less than a mile from the mayor’s office.”
He implored the state lawmakers to consider addressing the problem because Tallahassee represents Florida nationally, saying the state should, at the very least, have a vested interest in Tallahassee’s “name remaining good.”
In a follow-up interview after the meeting, it became clear that each present member of delegation — Montford, Alexander and Ausley—all have a similar notion of why crime is a problem and what they’ll do to combat it. For the most part, the lawmakers believe in using their powers to prevent crime early on.
“A lot of the root causes of crime is poverty itself, and I agree with that,” Montford said. He cited access to education and health care as priorities to ensure a safe environment.
“It’s something that, as a community, we all need to put our heads together to address,” Ausley told Florida Politics. She said she’s a longtime child advocate, and that’s how she’ll continue to take steps preventing violent crime.
“I’m going to continue my focus on the things that I can control, which are those long-term issues of really stabilizing (violent crime) neighborhoods and addressing the disparity,” she said.
“Poverty is a big issue to deal with – if you can’t have a job, you’re going to participate in certain activities that somebody else may not participate in,” Alexander said. He added it’s also important to ensure youth have access to opportunities.
Back-to-back committee weeks start Nov. 6.