Ed. note — It’s almost time to say goodbye to several lawmakers, all moving on due to term limits. We thought now would be a good time for a curtain call, a chance to reminisce on serving their districts in Tallahassee.
In this series, which initially appeared in INFLUENCE Magazine, you’ll hear about highlights and challenges, how they pursued politics and where they’re headed now. You’ll also get a glimpse of the state as the coronavirus was kicking into a higher gear. The pandemic tests safety standards and hurts the economy, and ideas about how to handle it differ sharply.
The COVID-19 pandemic might have something to say about when lawmakers meet again, possibly sooner than anticipated.
The 2020 budget left legislators with much to feel good about. A $500 million package would go most of the way toward raising starting teacher salaries to $47,500. Prison workers and other state employees also got raises, and another $500 million spearheaded by the Governor to protect springs amplified Florida’s natural beauty.
Then the novel coronavirus picked up and picked up again. By the time the $93.2 billion budget passed on March 19, it had undergone some last-minute surgery, including $52.5 million in mostly federal funds for a COVID-19 response, backed up by $300 million in contingency funds.
At least in the United States, the virus has shown little sign of slowing down since, which means legislators might not be finished with the budget after all. After some hard-won compromises to reach passage, what would the budget look like with emergency revisions for the pandemic?
Enter Rep. Travis Cummings, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee and alternating chair of the Budget Committee. In three years close to the budget, he has already seen how hurricanes or a horrific school shooting knock the best-laid plans askew. And before he retires from the Legislature because of term limits, there’s a good chance that Cummings, his Senate cohort Rob Bradley and other lawmakers will have to adjust the final budget numbers. Tourism alone generates $500 million a month in tax revenues, for example, and theme parks are closed.
“We are cautiously optimistic that we can get through the current fiscal year,” Cummings said. “But when the revenue receipts come in in March, April and May, we will evaluate all that. And maybe by a June or July timeframe, we’ve got to figure out if we have to go back to Tallahassee and, quite frankly, pull some levers that will allow us to have an adequate budget to support the services we provide.”
As for what to cut, there’s no easy way out.
“Let’s face it,” he said, “if we’re talking about billions versus $50 million of resources that could be identified, you’re going to have to look in the areas of cutting those types of expenditures. And what would that be? It would be health care, education, the environment.”
Cummings grew up in Orange Park without giving a thought to politics. A chance encounter changed that. He planned a career in business and created one, graduating with an MBA from the University of North Florida. Then he bought a house. The seller, whom he met at the closing, was former Orange Park Mayor Earl Theus.
“He encouraged me to seek an office on the Orange Park Town Council,” Cummings recalled. “I didn’t really know what I was getting into. But I knocked on a lot of doors, shook a lot of hands, ran a campaign, and got elected. I didn’t plan on that, it just kind of happened. But that’s how it started.”
In a small-world moment, he sat on a dais near a newly elected city attorney, Bradley, who today chairs the Senate side of the budget commission. Cummings would serve on the Town Council from 2002 to 2008, including a two-year term midway through as Mayor. He won a seat in the Legislature in 2012, representing home turf in the 18th district.
Highlights over four terms include setting up a regulatory framework for telehealth, or online video visits with physicians (also known as telemedicine), a booming trend Florida had been slow to adopt. The Legislature prepared a package last April smoothing out some sticking points, including allowing providers to negotiate rates for telehealth visits with insurers. The coronavirus that introduced “social distancing” into the lexicon has dramatically accelerated that potential.
“Telehealth has been a huge, huge thing,” Cummings said, “and now, with this epidemic we have, it seems like everybody’s really craving it. Unfortunately, it’s coming with the spread of this awful virus. But it’s refreshing to see some of the barriers we have seen removed. And I think the things we’ve done, particularly in this last Session, will provide benefits for many years to come in our state.”
He’s happy about warding off Medicaid expansion, which skeptics saw as a budget buster, the springs restoration bill, and backing programs to help former inmates get housing and job training, among many other initiatives.
And while he remains equally committed to his full-time role as a Vice President for The Bailey Group, which administers employee benefits, there’s much to be gained by going all-in on public service, Cummings said.
“I have no regrets,” he said, “because I’ve tried to do it in a very genuine manner. I don’t make decisions for the people I represent, not based on getting reelected. I try to remember where I came from and the people I represent. And because of that, I’ve been fortunate to have voters support me for 18 years.”
He looks forward to spending additional time with his wife, Jessica, and three children, the eldest 10 years old. Hopefully, they’ll get a chance to cheer on the Jacksonville Jaguars with dad, a diehard fan.
In a few months, he’ll help lead the inquiry of the economic fallout from the coronavirus. Will the damage take billions out of the budget, and if so, what happens then?
“We just had a successful session for teachers and educators, knock on wood, don’t think our goal is to retract that,” he said. “I’m not saying all those things aren’t on the table. But I do think that we’ve probably got to look at all of it to see quite frankly where you can pick up hundreds of millions of dollars, not tens of millions. I think it’s still a little too early to predict.”
A recent incident threw the mild-mannered representative into the spotlight. In February, Cummings was chairing an Appropriations Committee meeting when a man brought up school vouchers.
Local gadfly Greg Pound, known as a frequent commenter, was chiming in on an allegation that the state’s voucher program funds schools that promote anti-LGBTQ views.
The meeting, which was videotaped, shows Pound spelling out the acronym, then adding the letter “P” — for “pedophile.”
“Now, let me ask you this,” Pound said. “Where do these people get their children?”
Cummings cut him off: “Your testimony is ended.”
When Pound demanded an explanation, Cummings told him that his comments were offensive. He directed the sergeant-at-arms to escort Pound out. Because Cummings doesn’t use social media, it fell to friends to tell him he had become a sort of local hero.
“It’s a moment I’ll never forget,” he said. “Because I’m a white male and I’m married with three children, I haven’t dealt with that type of bigotry and misguided positions.”
Other outlets painted the incident with a light touch, starring a Legislator on his way out because of term limits who had decided he wasn’t going to take any bull.
But Cummings isn’t laughing. Pound’s comments challenged fundamental decency and had to be shut down, he said. The moment, he said, thrust him into the position of looking down the barrel of discrimination. His tone gets dark.
“Folks want to think our country is divided,” he said. “And people think that some of our folks side with people like that. I can tell you that the people I run around with are lifelong Republicans, and I am conservative. But I can tell you that they 100 percent agreed that Mr. Pound’s behavior has absolutely no place in our world today.”