Jacksonville Bold for 2.25.21 — 60 days ahead

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60 days ahead 

This week, Jacksonville Bold looks at the Northeast Florida legislative delegation, with legislators outlining what they hope to get done and what they see as possible headed into the next 60 days.

As we learned in 2020, a lot can change between now and then.

When the Legislative Session began last year, there were some hints of economic turbulence to come. But no coronavirus, no masks, no Zoom calls stacked atop each other, day in and day out.

Much has changed, however.

In those days, Capitol lawmakers made hard decisions, only dimly aware of the hell ahead.

This Session will be under the shadow of the coronavirus. The Capitol is not the same place. COVID tests and remote public commentary ensure that the building, a real-life petri dish last year, may not be so bad this year.

Legislators will be making decisions under conditions never imagined when running (in most cases). What’s driving them this year? And what should we expect?

Tough choices

The President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Aaron Bean, is from this region. And while he can look back at accomplishments from 2020, such as the bill expanding branded license plates and a crackdown on a wayward state domestic violence agency, he knows there’s work ahead … and tough choices.

“One of the hardest things government does is care for kids from broken families,” Bean notes.

Aaron Bean faces some tough choices. Image via Colin Hackley.

The Senator sees other tough choices ahead, including in his sphere of health appropriations. Bean chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, and he is acutely aware that not every need can be met there as well.

In the end, “you want to deliver a really good product.” But the state’s fiscal situation may present some challenges.

Priority list

When asked what her most important priorities were for 2021, Sen. Audrey Gibson reframed the question.

Audrey Gibson has a special to-do list. Image via Colin Hackley.

“I have several, and I don’t really like it to appear that some are less pressing,” the Jacksonville Democrat representing SD 5 said.

Among her issues this Session: Alzheimer’s and dementia care training standards, efforts to curb maternal mortality among African American women and women of color more generally, and a police reform push with the Legislative Black Caucus.

As did most of the regional delegation, Gibson noted the balancing act between needs and resources in funding asks.

“Originally, I hesitated on requests but rethought,” the Senator explained. “Our communities have to have a way to rebound. Programmatic funding directly into a community can help with that.”

Trimming back

Sen. Travis Hutson is among the most powerful Republicans in the Senate. But the St. Johns County Republican tells Jacksonville Bold that the pandemic has narrowed his expectations regarding appropriations.

COVID-19 has narrowed Travis Hutson’s scope. Image via Florida Senate.

“The pandemic has me looking at the most important priorities only, and I am trimming back on budget asks,” Hutson relates.

He sees the most significant priority as being “COVID-19 liability relief for businesses.”

In terms of other issues Hutson wants to advance, workforce education is another big one.

“Specifically allowing apprentices to be state employees so that workers comp isn’t a liability for the businesses wanting to recruit,” Hutson explained.

Balancing act

Rep. Clay Yarborough has become an increasingly major player in the House, and he recognizes the unique moment as one that changed political priorities for him and his legislative colleagues.

It’s a unique moment for Clay Yarborough.

“There are countless issues that seemed important last year but are now not as relevant in the wake of COVID,” the third-term Republican from HD 11 told Bold this week.

He also recognizes the unique tension between increased needs and decreased resources. “

“Many needs have only increased during the pandemic. That said, we are faced with a very real revenue decline that we cannot ignore. I am still pushing appropriation priorities, but at the same time understand that this is a year for even more belt-tightening than we have had to do since I began serving,” Yarborough noted.

Beyond the belt-tightening, there is room for policy wins.

Yarborough wants liability protection for businesses.

“This will help us lead the nation in economic recovery. We also need to get all of our students back in school full-time. They are at greater risk of falling behind when not in class, in-person,” he notes.

As well, look for accountability legislation in the form of a bill that “will address areas in which significant improvement efforts need to be undertaken.”

“Making necessary changes will bring about greater oversight, accountability and efficiencies,” Yarborough added.

As well, he will continue to push for “adding to the middle and high school health curriculum that the warning signs of child exploitation, sexual abuse and human trafficking be taught.”

Vote of confidence

Rep. Jason Fischer of HD 16 on Jacksonville’s Southside offered some relatively positive thoughts on the state’s future.

Jason Fischer remains positive for the future. Image via Colin Hackley.

“My priorities this coming session include continuing to support legislation that cuts taxes on hardworking Floridians and encourage economic growth in our state by advocating for businesses of all sizes to relocate to Florida, as well as continuing to fight against increased and unnecessary regulation that stifles entrepreneurship, job growth and economic stability. Florida is strong and has bounced back from the pandemic because of our hardworking Floridians and our business-friendly regulatory environment,” Fischer notes.

That resiliency will drive Florida forward, the Jacksonville Republican predicts.

“The pandemic has, of course, impacted our tourism-reliant economy, but I am confident that the legislature and the governor will work together to craft and pass a budget that takes into equal consideration our state’s vital funding needs and responsible spending. I think everyone is cognizant of the pandemic’s impact on the state budget, but it is still our job as local elected leaders to advocate for the needs of our community. Everything will require balance and respect for where our state is financially as we continue to recover,” Fischer noted.

As well, pandemic aside, there is unfinished business from 2020 that remains.

“There are always issues at the end of Session that will carry over to the next year — that’s part of the collaborative process of both legislative chambers working together. Specifically, legislative initiatives that I worked on last year that I will continue to work on this year include vacation rentals in our communities and charter schools. I am proud of the work my colleagues and I accomplished in the Florida House last session, and I look forward to working together with them this coming session.”

Fischer carries a lot of ambitious legislation year in and year out. As the vacation rental issue showed last year, he’s willing to take the slings and arrows on controversial bills historically. 2021 appears to be no different.

No changes

Rep. Sam Garrison is new to the legislature this year, having taken over for termed-out Travis Cummings.

He kept it brief when we asked him what he intends to do in his first Session representing HD 18 in Clay County.

Sam Garrison may be new in the House, but he’s ready to work. Image via Colin Hackley.

“My legislative priorities are unchanged,” Garrison related. “Safe streets, a strong economy and good schools. It’s what I ran on and what I believe in.”

Garrison also says he is picking his spots on spending asks: “My approach to appropriations requests is to ask if it’s a good value for taxpayers, appropriate use of government resources, and a project I believe in. The pandemic makes that analysis even more discerning.”

Garrison, who has filed for reelection next year, will face an opponent.

Cornelius Dwayne Jones of Orange Park entered the race Monday and is currently the only other candidate seeking the seat.

Jones’ first campaign finance report, covering the portion of February he was a candidate, is due in mid-March.

Garrison, meanwhile, had raised $11,000 for his reelection bid as of Jan. 31 and has more than $10,000 in the bank.

Lawmakers are not allowed to fundraise during Session.

Budget responsibly

St. Johns County Rep. Cyndi Stevenson is conscious of the budget challenges ahead and sees parallels to a different time.

Cyndi Stevenson is well aware of the challenges but says it had been done before. Image via Colin Hackley.

“Passing a responsible budget is our most pressing priority this session. It is expected that Florida drew down nearly $2 billion of our General Fund reserves to see the state through the fiscal year ended June 30, 2020. That is about half of those reserves. The aggregate General Revenue loss over 2020 to 2022 is estimated to be $5.3 billion. That is nearly the same amount of general revenue the state lost between 2007 and 2009 during the Great Recession. During that three-year period, the state lost $6.1 billion in general revenues,” she noted.

The veteran legislator is still pursuing appropriations requests, but she notes the difficulty of sustainable programming in recent budgets.

“I was extremely grateful to get nonrecurring funding again last year for the FACT team, which provides outpatient support services for about 100 people with serious mental illness in Putnam and St. Johns County — but my goal was to get it into the base. It is the only FACT team in the state that is not in the base budget. You cannot turn those kind of services on and off without harming people.    It needs to be considered as part of the base funding. It is not done yet due to COVID’s impact on Florida’s GR.

“The same is true of a number of the other appropriations projects that I have filed again this year. In a downturn, the needs don’t go away; they accumulate. When revenues begin to recover, we will continue to face hard decisions as we meet some needs-and at the same time rebuild our reserves for the next rainy day. We went through this same cycle after the Great Recession,” Stevenson noted.

It’s not just the budget for Stevenson this year, though. She also carries bills that tighten voter privacy, a crackdown on predatory lending, and offer more support to struggling nursing schools.

Payne energy

Rep. Chris Sprowls showed some love to the region, picking Rep. Bobby Payne for a slot on the Southern States Energy Board.

Chris Sprowls gives Northeast Florida some love, with a key role for Bobby Payne. Image via Colin Hackley.

Payne, a utility lifer who managed operations at a generating station in his hometown Palatka, was recognized by the House Speaker for his “long, impressive record in the energy sector.”

“His extensive knowledge in electric power generation, transmission and distribution across the state of Florida will prepare him well for this new role serving Florida’s consumers and our energy industry while protecting our natural resources and wildlife,” Sprowls added.

Payne, first elected in 2016, is quickly ascending in the House. He serves as chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Last Call

A Jacksonville attorney and future House Speaker will be at the center of the last major Tallahassee fundraiser before Session kicks off news week.

Paul Renner takes center stage at a Governors Club event.

Rep. Paul Renner will host with current Speaker Sprowls and the man who will be Speaker next, Rep. Daniel Perez.

The event will be held in the Magnolia Room of the Governors Club on Monday from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

The invitation says social distancing protocols will be enforced.

They are billing the event as a “last call” as a possible reference to the fundraising ban for lawmakers during the 60-day Legislative Session, which begins Tuesday.

Renner, a Palm Coast Republican, recently took over as chair of the House GOP campaign arm. He is in line to become Speaker after the 2022 elections.

Spirit squad

Former Congresswoman Corrine Brown left office nearly five years ago under the weight of indictment, convicted on 18 counts related to fraud. Due to the coronavirus epidemic, she was released early in her five-year prison stretch.

Corrine Brown hopes the ‘Holy Spirit’ will keep her out of prison. Image via News4Jax.

But she still seeks exoneration. And to that end, the Jacksonville Democrat continued Tuesday to press her case for appeal on the grounds of a pro-Brown juror eliminated from the jury pool during her original hearing.

Tuesday saw the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals hear her case. The court made no ruling during the Zoom meeting.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals includes two recent Florida appointees from the Donald Trump era, each of whom came from the state’s Supreme Court. If Brown is ultimately vindicated, their arguments may be part of the reason.

Justice Robert Luck posed the question to David Rhodes, a government lawyer, that there was a “reasonable possibility” that Juror 13 could have been guided by the facts despite the assertion of being directed from above.

Justice Barbara Lagoa also pressed the prosecutor on what he had called a “radioactive statement” about faith as a guiding principle.

Lagoa described the Catholic precept of the “Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit,” which includes “the prayer for counsel.”

“The trial court judge here, what he did was really make a personal rule. You can pray, but if you get a response, that’s an external influence,” Lagoa said, pressing the government on excluding the juror.

Crystal ball

Looking for the inside scoop on what to expect in the 2021 Session? Tucker/Hall and The Fiorentino Group are hosting “Political Preview Jacksonville,” with leading Florida media members giving their exclusive insights on what will be on the political horizon.

Grab your Magic 8 Balls.

Panelists include Florida Politics publisher Peter Schorsch; Mary Ellen Klas, capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald and News Service of Florida Executive Editor Jim Saunders.

The Zoom event is Friday, February 26, at 11:30 a.m. Meeting ID: 89810486696; passcode: 572098. To RSVP, click here.


Marty Fiorentino, founder and lead partner at The Fiorentino Group, will be the featured speaker at the JAC Chamber Transportation and Logistics Council Virtual Luncheon on Friday from 11:30 a.m. — 1 p.m.

Fiorentino will discuss “Observations on Transportation Under New Administration,” an overall look at what the Biden administration means for transportation spending and policy in the U.S. and Northeast Florida.

Marty Fiorentino
Marty Fiorentino imparts his extensive wisdom on transportation and logistics.

The virtual presentation will draw on Fiorentino’s unique perspective from decades of standing for transportation organizations and years of working at the DOT in Washington.

Registration for the free Zoom event can be found online here.

To learn more about the JAX Chamber Transportation & Logistics Council, visit www.jaxtlcouncil.org.

Bo knows HD 11?

From the football huddle to the Florida House?

Bo Wade Hodges gives Republicans a generational choice. Image via Facebook.

Voters in House District 11 will have a generational choice on next year’s Republican ballot, with a recent high school graduate looking to represent the Northeast Florida district in the state House.

Twenty-year-old Bo Wade Hodges filed this month to run for office. In the district that spans all of Nassau and some of Duval, he will be able to stake his claim to real, localized support from Hilliard and West Nassau in what is so far is a two-man primary to replace Senate-seeking Rep. Cord Byrd.

A year and a half from the primary, Hodges already has one filed opponent: Personal injury lawyer Heath Brockwell of Jacksonville Beach.

Meanwhile, Byrd has no plans to endorse; he has already made that clear. Byrd has a Senate race of his own.

Assuming there aren’t major changes to the district, the primary will be more competitive than the general in what’s drawn as a Republican safe seat.

Renter help

Jacksonville residents who are having difficulty making rent payments due to the coronavirus pandemic can get some help from the city.

Mayor Lenny Curry, flanked by several other city officials, announced a new plan Monday that allocates about $28.9 million in federal grants to help renters pay their monthly bill. The federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program money aims to help residents cover up to 12 months of rent and utility bills. There’s also an option of up three additional months of help if housing stability assistance is determined to be necessary.

Lenny Curry throws a lifeline to renters swimming in debt. Image via Colin Hackley.

The United Way of Northeast Florida will distribute about $23.8 million of the rental assistance. The city and Jacksonville Electric Authority will distribute the remaining $5 million for city residents with past due utility bills.

Families facing eviction will receive priority attention from the city under the program. Residents eligible for the program must have income below 80% of the median income in the area. The income qualifications include:

Household size/total Income

— One person/$42,000

— Two people/$48,000

— Three people/$54,000

— Four people/$60,000

— Five people/$64,800

— Six people/$69,600

— Seven people/$74,400

— Eight people/$79,200

Applicants for the program must also meet these qualifications:

— Reside in Duval County.

— Provide proof of hardship due to COVID-19, including verification of unemployment benefits, a reduction in income, or other financial issues that threaten the household’s ability to pay rent when due.

— Provide a documented risk of housing instability or homelessness.

— Be unable to access other payment assistance for the same costs. For example, if rent assistance was received from another program for March through May, this program may not be used to pay for rent during that time frame; however, it could cover other months.

The application process will be available on the city’s website coj.net and available in the coming weeks.

LNG port

Jacksonville’s liquefied natural gas industry got a boost this month when a foreign ship was loaded with LNG at Jacksonville’s port.

JAX LNG and TOTE services conducted the bunkering — or loading — of the ship on Feb. 18. Crews loaded 450,000 gallons of LNG at the Jacksonville Port Authority onto the LNG-powered Siem Confucius vessel registered with Liberia at the Blount Island Terminal. The LNG was transferred from the LNG bunker barge Cleaner Jacksonville.

JAXPORT’s Blount Island facility make a big move in LNG. Photo via JAXPORT.

“This commercial bunkering is a major milestone for TOTE Services and a significant step toward supporting clean fueled vessels operating around the world,” said TOTE Services President Jeff Dixon. “TOTE Services’ significant experience with LNG, combined with our technical expertise and commitment to safety, allows us to assist other customers adopting the use of the cleanest, most readily available fuel for shipping today and into the future.”

JAXPORT CEO Eric Green said the development is another feather in the cap of the First Coast’s port facilities trying to improve eco-friendly services.

“Some of the world’s most eco-friendly ships call JAXPORT thanks to the innovation and vision of our customers and port partners,” Green said. “Jacksonville is a global leader in the use of LNG, and we are proud to support the continued growth of LNG in the maritime industry and beyond.”

Flagler Health+ Village

Award-winning construction management firm Stellar has officially completed its construction of the new Flagler Health+ Village at Nocatee.

The $19 million project includes a multistory medical office building with 40,000 square feet.

The new Flagler Health+ Village at Nocatee was recently completed by Stellar.

The project sits on a 4-acre site in the Nocatee Town Center, located in the heart of an upcoming master-planned community. The new health village offers residents a variety of comprehensive medical services, including:

— Primary care and family medicine

— Laboratory and diagnostic services

— Concierge medicine

— Imaging (MRI, CT scans, X-ray, ultrasound and mammography)

— Heart and vascular care

— Orthopedics

— Health coaching

— Wellness and educational classes

The building’s design aims to connect visitors and staff to the surrounding natural environment. The design incorporates a green moss wall that helps cleanse the air of toxic VOCs, reduces noise, and adds a clutter-free, natural design element to the space. There is also a large expansive view of the exterior, a curtain wall, airy skylights, and a 1-acre park.

“We’re honored to be a part of translating this innovative health and wellness concept into a reality for First Coast residents,” said Richard Lovelace, senior vice president, Commercial at Stellar. “We’ve partnered with Flagler Health+ to build the health village in the Murabella community, which is now open, as well as the forthcoming health village at Durbin Park.”

Staff Reports

One comment

  • Sonja Fitch

    February 26, 2021 at 4:16 am

    The read of this article presents a common good approach to the serve and protect methods/funding of the North East Florida. Jury still out til the end of the 2021 legislative session. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Goptrump and GOPQ cults representing us in US Congress vote for the relief bill that aides towns and cities in North East Florida? Yes I am talking to cop killer Rutherford, Nazi Rick, and little Marco.

Comments are closed.


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