Q: When did session begin and what is on the schedule at this time?
A: Session began on Jan. 14. All bills have been filed and the next thing approaching is the budget. Leadership decides the big pieces, basically the five major categories of the budget, and then it’s up to the budget chairs to get everything to fit in. Eventually, the budget will be sent to the governor, who has a line item veto. He can take items out of the budget, but not put them in.
Q: Can you give an overview of Florida’s budget?
A: First, money is very limited and entitlement costs are growing rapidly. It used to be that K-12 funding was the largest part of the budget, but now healthcare is largest.
Q: Can you expand upon how limited the money is?
A: I don’t think people realize how slow the recovery since the recession has been for the State of Florida. The state’s general revenue didn’t recover to its pre-recession level, on a per-person basis, until 2018. Put another way, we are in the 11th year of economic expansion, but it took nine years to get revenue to pre-recession levels. Recovery has been slow. Yes, revenues have increased, but demands have grown as well. It’s only in the last two years that we have been able to spend funds on non-obligations, like water resources and land acquisition (i.e. Florida Forever).
Q: So, the amount of entitlements (obligations) make it challenging to fund other items?
A: Yes. From 2000 – 2015, 91 percent of revenue went to obligations rather than discretionary spending. Entitlement costs are consuming more and more of our budget and putting pressure on everything else. We have kept Florida a relatively low-tax state and kept our pension funds funded, but it makes it harder to fund other items like infrastructure. And when voters pass Constitutional Amendments that either give tax breaks to certain groups or pin down part of the budget for certain things, these give us even less flexibility. I think we need to be very careful with Constitutional Amendments, as these are forever.
Q: What do you see as the top priorities in funding this year?
A: The governor has advocated for affordable workforce housing, so I believe that is a priority. I believe teacher funding is a need and will be a priority in session, along with prison funding and mental health and substance abuse funding. We still have a lot of work to do, but we will keep chipping away at it.
Q: What insight can you give us on St. Johns County?
A: It’s interesting that, statewide, tourism led us out of the recession and housing has been very slow. This is hard for us in St. Johns County to believe and why it’s important for our local delegation to advocate for us because we are different. St. Johns County is a bit of an aberration in the state as it grew throughout the recession and attracted more and more families. The legislature needs to advocate for line items to help our high growth areas, because we still have unmet needs in St. Johns County: we need more judges to service our increased population, we need more mental health services and on top of that, we’ve had major hurricanes.
Q: Do you have any bills that you are sponsoring?
A: Yes, I have several. There are two bills related to mental health (one for early identification and treatment for those with psychosis and one for Baker Act reforms); a bill to allow physical therapists to more fully practice; a bill for recovery care centers to provide a more affordable option for those who don’t have enough care at home; and a bill that will help us have a state estimate for resiliency projects related to sea-level rise.
Q: What is the best way for our readers to contact you?
A: Readers can email me at Cyndi.Stevenson@myfloridahouse.gov or call my local office at (904) 823-2300.