Local Lawmakers Hope Regional Projects Will Get Through When Budget Talks Resume

May 7, 2015

Local lawmakers want $250,000 to renovate the St. Marks lighthouse.
Credit By Mosamiazaz / wikimedia Commons

Florida lawmakers are heading back to Tallahassee June first to pick up where they left off on budget negotiations. The Big Bend’s regional delegation is banking on the special session to get some local projects funded.

A key feature of Florida’s budget is the local and regional projects that go into it. That includes plans that fund the construction of schools, local roads and water systems. North Florida Sen. Bill Montford says he’s confident they’ll be included when the legislature reconvenes in June. One of his projects included funding a new elementary school in Jefferson County—the project is on a waiting list for state funding, but it’s a priority or the small, cash-strapped district that lies just west of Leon County.

“You have to show a need, you have to show good fiscal management of your school district," Montford said. "Then the state will step in and pay a good portion of the construction cost of the school. Jefferson is a good example, Taylor is an example, Liberty is another one."

Also on the region’s to-do list: re-opening the Port St. Joe Port. A dredging effort is currently underway. The state has already supplied money to the project, and Montford is trying to secure another $20 million for the effort. There’s also a $250,000 request to renovate the St. Marks Lighthouse, and an ask for funding a World War II Museum in Franklin County. But one of the greatest question marks of the budget impasse, may be water projects—which affect nearly every area of the state.

“There’s a lot of things we’re holding our breath on to see if they’re going to pass once we get in to special session.” Rep. Michelle Rehwinkle Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, said.

The demise of a springs bill tied to the budget has left funding for dozens of systems like Wakulla Springs—dangling. But not every death is a blow to the region. Vasilinda says she’s disappointed a ban on fracking didn’t happen, but is pleased measure that would override local bans like one in Leon County also didn’t pass:

“What we really should be looking for is a ban on fracking, not how to regulate or enable it. So I was so very happy to see that one die a death. At least it’s gone for now," she said.

On the upside, Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, was able to claim two victories—lawmakers approved his bill allowing Panacea to become a city, as well as a claims bill for a Tallahassee man who was critically injured when a city waste management truck ran him over.

But nixed in the previous budget talks were state employee pay raises—an issue highly important to Leon County as the main hub of the state’s workforce.

Sound- “Going forward, this should never be a question of if we can fund state worker pay raises, but when and how much," Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said.

In addition to state worker raises, Williams’ district also had several projects on the to-do list:

“Whether its an elementary school in Jefferson county, projects to keep communities from flooding in future years in Leon County, whether its looking at an Ag center in Gadsden County, or capital projects at our universities and community college…even road projects vital to moving commerce, these have been things on the drawing board for years, in some cases, almost a decade.”

Some of those member projects could resurface when the legislature reconvenes. It all depends on how lawmakers choose to address healthcare funding, which has driven the budgetary discord. Governor Rick Scott did not have much luck in persuading the federal government to renew a critical 2-billion dollar program that reimburses hospitals for uncompensated care, and the federal government is maintaining its position that the funding partly depends on whether the state expands health insurance to more people. The Senate wants to expand Medicaid to meet that demand and the House and Governor are opposed.