Rep. Jason Shoaf hails from Florida’s “Forgotten Coast,” but he has plans to prevent his region from being left behind.
The Port St. Joe Republican’s district covers 10 North Florida counties from Calhoun and Gulf counties to Liberty County, including parts of rural Leon County.
Much of the area has been hit with a trifecta of disasters over the last dozen years, from the BP oil spill to Hurricane Michael and now the COVID-19 pandemic. In part because of the back-to-back-to-back barrage, the region struggles with workforce shortages.
But there is a larger pool of workers the Panhandle could be drawing from. Shoaf’s bill addressing workforce issues (HB 991) hopes to leverage the fact that crossing state lines is not uncommon in North Florida.
For school districts and Florida College System schools with service areas bordering other states, the measure would allow the school boards or boards of trustees to reduce out-of-state fees if it helps address workforce needs in the region. The boards would work in consultation with local workforce development boards to implement local plans.
Georgians could drive to North Florida College in Madison or farther south to Gulf Coast State College in Panama City.
“I think it’s smart to prioritize Florida students, but during times as challenging as these, we have to adapt and allow talent into our state to meet our workforce’s unmet needs,” Shoaf said.
To deal with the seasonal influx of tourists, a second measure (HB 673) would allow elected officials in rural and coastal areas to put 20% of tourism tax revenue toward public safety, such as hiring police officers and lifeguards. Similarly, 20% could be used to reimburse expenses for tourism workforce training programs. Currently, coastal areas can use 10% for public safety reimbursements.
With the Representative’s suggestions, the measure could extend to the hospitality industry and allow local colleges or high schools to provide workforce training for the industry.
“Whether they want to teach hospitality or culinary arts or anything that the local tourist industry says that they are in need of, they could use those dollars to create a workforce pipeline and keep those businesses employed,” Shoaf said.
Also in education, another of Shoaf’s measures would consider the economic disparity within some small communities in the Panhandle. The state currently provides additional funding to school districts in rural areas to compensate for the additional dollars necessary to put in the same resources. One example is the need to serve larger distances that rural areas cover. However, an area with high property values could be disqualified from the additional funding even if property taxes still don’t make up the difference.
“These rural areas in the Forgotten Coast area contain a disproportionately small number of wealthy individuals with high value homes on the coastline, while the inland parts of the county often have a lower property value,” Shoaf said.
His fix (HB 989) would prohibit the state from reducing the additional funds for school districts with 2,000 or fewer students.
Finally, after living through nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shoaf wants to protect the quality of life for Floridians who require additional care. One bill (HB 987) would ensure residents of nursing homes and other facilities have the right to name a designated caregiver. That designated caregiver would be guaranteed at least two hours to visit each day.
Though the pandemic posed health risks, shutting out visitors from nursing homes did more harm than good, Shoaf believes. Nursing home patients regressed without the love of their families and their normal daily interactions. Families also missed the opportunity to say goodbye.
“I would bet you that at least half of the Legislature probably stood outside of an assisted living facility window and waved to their loved ones at least once during this pandemic,” Shoaf said. “So many that I’ve talked to have experienced that.”
And when friends and constituents would share pictures of their loved ones living isolated in a facility, he would get a peek into how they progressed week over week.
“The people were just dying. They were losing their will to live,” Shoaf said. “You stick somebody in a room and they’re scared of dying of COVID anyway, and then they’re watching the news, and they can’t have a single visitor.”
Shoaf, while still a freshman lawmaker, has the advantage of an additional year of experience because he was first elected in a 2019 Special Election. His lesson has been to do your homework and learn from listening to constituents.
“I’m amazed at how many things I still learn about that I didn’t really know a lot about before,” Shoaf said. “I don’t know if that’s a good political answer, but that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned in the last years.”