St. Johns County lawmakers debrief on busy 2019 legislative session

Originally posted on the St. Augustine Record

Calling Florida’s last legislative session “the biggest in scope and in what was passed in 20 years,” state Rep. Paul Renner joined other regional political officials Friday to highlight bills that came out of Tallahassee this spring and their local impact.

Also in attendance at the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce breakfast Friday at the World Golf Hall of Fame Museum were state Sen. Travis Hutson, St. Johns County Commissioner Paul Waldron and St. Augustine Vice Mayor Leanna Freeman. The panel touched on a broad range of issues from education and health care, prison reform and the environment.

Hutson (R-St. Augustine) said he believed a lack of political in-fighting allowed the Legislature to achieve as much as it did in the 2019 session.

“We were able to pass a balanced budget,” Hutson said, “and made some major accomplishments in bills.”

He cited lawmakers’ abilities to strike a compromise that continues to fund Visit Florida, the state’s tourism development arm, for at least a one-year reprieve. Richard Goldman, president and CEO of St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau, has been vocal about his concerns on the negative impact not receiving the backing of Visit Florida could have on the tourism industry in St. Johns County.

Hutson also spoke about educational initiatives he believes will benefit students statewide, for example, policy changes that don’t push all students toward college after graduation from high school.

“Whereas we were sending kids to high school, and if they couldn’t get their 24 credits through advanced classes, they were not going to get a high school diploma,” Hutson said. “Now, we’re creating a new pathway, one that focuses some kids on vocational training and education.”

Hutson also said students in Florida public schools will have the option to get more financial literacy education. Currently, it was covered as a single unit of an economics courses, he said.

“It is now a full course elective,” Hutson said. “Hopefully, we’ll get to the point where it will be mandatory.”

Renner (R-Palm Coast) noted a bill he sponsored that decriminalizes lesser, non-violent offenses such as probation violations. He also supported a bill that will allow prisoners to work toward occupational certifications to ready them for reentry back into society.

Renner also spoke about a number of policy changes to consumer health care options, specifically citing a bill to open the Sunshine State to the importation of drugs from Canada to help lower costs for Florida residents as well as legislation that opens ambulatory care centers to perform more surgeries, also saving money.

Freeman mentioned several pieces of legislation under the budget that, once signed by Gov. Rick DeSantis, could help St. Augustine, including funds to upgrade the sewer system in West Augustine. Freeman also is hopeful that the North Florida Land Trust’s agreement with the state will allow it to successfully acquire the Fish Island acreage and protect it from development.

“This seemed to be an issue that brought the community together … to preserve this really pristine and unique piece of property,” Freeman said.