2015 Awake the State rallies take on quieter tone

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Progressive activists across the state are calling on the Florida Legislature to take up five key issues voted on by supporters of the group Progress Florida.

During a rally Tuesday at Spa Beach near the downtown St. Pete Pier, about 20 activists announced their agenda, which includes increasing the minimum wage, expanding healthcare and Medicaid, ensuring access to clean water and energy, and reforming campaign finance laws.

“We want to put the progressive agenda in the forefront,” community activist Kofi Hunt said. “These issues are not taken seriously by the Republican-controlled House.”

Previously, a coalition of activists assembled by Progress Florida known as Awake the State has taken to cities across Florida to protest conservative bills it sees as harmful to middle- and lower-income earners. For the past four years they’ve protested issues such as public education spending, assaults on voting rights, and limited access to healthcare.

The group is taking a different approach this year. Instead of picketing agendas they disagree with, the group is laying out its own agenda and seeking support.

Since the rally in St. Pete drew only about 20 activists with only two reporters covering it, it begs the question, how is a group gathering only limited attention going to gain traction on issues the conservative Legislature has little interest in addressing?

“[We do that by] taking these 20 people, knocking on hundreds of doors [and doing] deep organizing, not protesting,” Hunt said.

The group is not alone. In Tallahassee, activists gathered at the Capitol at the opening of the 2015 Legislative Session. Other groups assembled in South Florida and Orlando. Groups held events on Florida’s East Coast and in the Panhandle.

One of the biggest issues facing progressives is in getting the Legislature to agree on a measure to expand the state’s Medicaid program to nearly 1 million uninsured, low-income Floridians. The state has rejected $51 billion in federal funding to pay for the expansion.

“Now we’re seeing it more of it’s the Senate versus the House,” Florida Consumer Action Network community organizer Olivia Bavis said. “You have a lot of Republicans who are on board with this now.”

It’s an issue that once saw a stark political divide. Republicans rejected the notion of accepting federal money to expand healthcare while Democrats saw it as a no-brainer. Now it’s not so cut and dried. Senate President Andy Gardiner seems on board with a plan to carry out a program that would include a free-market approach to expansion. The traditionally conservative Chamber of Commerce also supports it. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, though, is still on the fence and leaning towards an anti-Obamacare “no.”

“These are students. These are healthcare workers,” Bavis said of the people falling into what’s known as the “coverage gap.” Those people who earn less than the federal poverty level don’t qualify for a subsidy for private health coverage and many also don’t qualify for Medicaid because the state has chosen not to expand its program.

Another key issue Progress Florida is tackling this year is the minimum wage. There’s a bill that has been introduced to raise the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour, but even that isn’t enough for some activists.

“The best way for businesses to retain their reliable consistent staff is to pay more than 10 an hour, especially in the retail and food industries where individuals like myself are forced to work because of their choices in the past,” Pinellas County resident Niki Johnson said.

Johnson is part of a nationwide movement called “Fight for Fifteen” that advocates a $15 minimum wage.

“In this economy the higher minimum wages in enacted by U.S cities have shown no evidence of slowed job growth or business relocation. So, it’s a benefit,” she said.

On the clean energy front activists are trying to send a message to reluctant lawmakers that the public is interested in clean energy policies. That would include tapping alternative energy sources such as wind and solar. However, the most prominent face of the energy debate lies with Duke Energy and a Florida law that allows the energy giant to collect advanced nuclear cost recovery fees from customers.

Up until the company issued a freeze on billing customers for advanced fees, customers were forking over fees to cover $3.2 billion that the Florida Public Service Commission ruled that consumers should pay for two nuclear projects never completed and finally cancelled.

The fight began with Democrats called for a repeal of the law allowing Duke to collect those fees. During the 2014 election cycle, however, many Republicans started joining the chorus.

Dwight Dudley, who was on Duke Energy’s hit list I’m sure, they must have had some campaign contributions to his opponent, he won, because of, I think, the populist message that it makes sense to invest in clean energy and repeal policies that don’t make sense,” Sierra Club spokesman Tim Heberlein said.

The Sierra Club and other activist groups want to see the law repealed and the freeze on advance fees made permanent.

Jennifer Rubiello, with Environment Florida, is pushing for what she sees as common sense water policy.

“We’ve seen an assault on our water resources across the state for years, if not decades,” Rubiello said. “We need to protect water from its source.”

She’s supporting the Water Protection Act that would implement a minimum flow level for springs, require local governments to enact summer-time fertilizer bans, and ban fracking for oil production.

The fracking component is perhaps the largest win for environmentalist if the measure becomes law.

“Once [water is] contaminated there’s no going back,” Rubiello said.

Her group is also asking lawmakers to make sure money collected through the passage of Amendment 1 goes for land preservation and preventative water quality projects, rather than solely for improvements to water treatment facilities and other reactive infrastructure uses.

Amendment 1 passed with three-quarters of voters in favor of it. The measure dedicates for conservation about $1 billion a year from an existing real estate document tax.

Last updated on March 3, 2015

Janelle Irwin Taylor

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at [email protected]



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