Three Palm Beach County state lawmakers were on the list of “Champions of Florida’s Middle Class,” released Thursday by the liberal-leaning advocacy organization, Progress Florida.
All 18 House and Senate members named are Democrats. They were credited for their work fighting legislation that included efforts aimed at enacting a statewide fracking law, stricter abortion clinic regulation and allowing guns on college campuses.
Sen. Jeff Clemens of Atlantis, Rep. Lori Berman of Lantana and House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach were the area lawmakers named. Pafford and Berman have been named ‘champs’ since the honor was first handed out in 2011.
Florida House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach is nearing the end of a two-year stretch in what one of his colleagues called the “worst job in the Capitol.”
Being in charge of vastly outnumbered House Democrats means tilting at windmills almost every day. Pafford’s won-loss record rivals that of the Washington Generals, the Harlem Globetrotters’ longtime opponents.
But the liberal-leaning Democrat said he’s proud to have given his party’s 4.5 million voters a voice – even one that is steadily drowned out by a conservative majority.
“I wasn’t sent up here to pass bills, but to speak where I can and represent my constituency,” said Pafford, 49, first elected in 2008. His district includes Wellington, Loxahatchee Groves and Royal Palm Beach.
A measure that many warn could be used to open Florida to the controversial oil and gas drilling techniques known as fracking poses a threat to public health and the state’s environment, House Democrats and industry critics said Monday.
Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Hollywood, who is sponsoring separate legislation that would ban fracking in Florida, condemned House Republican leaders. He said the election-year push for more fracking was designed merely to placate the oil and gas industry, a steady GOP contributor.
Jenne said the House will “do anything, if it’s going to help their backers make a buck.”
The proposal (HB 191) is headed Tuesday for the House floor. A similar measure advanced last year, but failed to clear the state Senate, where Republican leaders still show little interest.
The House bill and a similar measure in the Senate (SB 318) would bar local governments from enacting prohibitions on the practice, which involves drilling deep below ground and the introduction of toxic chemicals that destroy rock, freeing oil or gas reserves.
Fracking currently is not regulated at the statewide level in Florida. Supporters of the legislation say it would set some standards for the industry.
Critics, however, say the legislation is misleading.
“This will destroy the state like you can’t imagine,” said Ray Kemble, a former fracking industry worker from Dimock, Penn., who said that more than half of that state’s almost 10,000 wells have been cited for violations.
After a turbulent 2015, the Florida Legislature looked to end the opening week of this year’s session in harmony Thursday, swiftly approving the top issues sought by the leaders of the House and Senate.
A measure that expands educational opportunities for Floridians with intellectual disabilities were overwhelmingly approved by the House sent to Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to sign it into law.
The legislation is a priority for Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, whose son has Down syndrome.
Moments later, the House OK’d sweeping water policy proposals sought by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.
The two leaders, whose chambers had battled through four legislative sessions last year – most of them ending badly – stood elbow-to-elbow on the House floor following Thursday’s votes, a clear departure from last year’s dysfunction.
Underscoring the optics, the 1980s hit Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us by Jefferson Starship was playing over the House sound system.
“This is what working together can do,” Crisafulli said. “Obviously, there’s a lot more to do, with a budget to pass and some great things we can do for the state of Florida.”
The leaders last year tried to get similar proposals approved. But they were derailed by the House and Senate’s fight over health care funding that led to a budget impasse that came dangerously close to forcing a state government shutdown.
But all that seemed forgotten Thursday. Gardiner dismissed a question about whether the newfound cooperation was prompted by this being an election year and fear that voters could toss lawmakers out if they risk more turmoil.
Gardiner and Crisafulli are term-limited and not running for re-election.
“We’re focused on the policy,” Gardiner said. “The elections will happen and those who are running will be held accountable. But for me, it’s about the policy.”
House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach scoffed at the political theater. While leaders achieved their wish lists, the needs of many Floridians would not be met this session, Pafford predicted.
“They want to demonstrate that they’re not going to shoot at each other,” Pafford said of Thursday’s action. “It’s going to be a passive type of session.”
More than 200 Palm Beach County officials, agency representatives and business leaders fanned out Wednesday across the Capitol for the county’s annual lobbying push timed to the start of the Legislature.
The message: Palm Beach County is Major League, with the theme touting the spring training arrival of the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals to a new ballpark in West Palm Beach, expected to open next year.
With the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals already in Jupiter, the four teams are expected to preserve spring training on Florida’s east coast for decades to come.
House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach spoke to the gathering about what to look forward to in the Legislature – which opened its two-month session only the day before.
For many, he was sobering.
“There’s nothing bold, there’s nothing that’s going to change the landscape of Florida,” before lawmakers this election year, Pafford said.
“Don’t expect miracles,” he advised.
County Day at the Capitol used to be a lavish affair, with barbecues, open bars and wholesale schmoozing among locals and lawmakers. But since the county’s corruption scandals of the 2000s, the event has toned down and turned mostly all business.
This year, though, the county did get some of its schwag back – Mardi Gras beads were worn by Palm Beachers with images underscoring the “major league” theme.
But the focus remained on button-holing lawmakers to push the county’s wish list, which includes budget items for the Glades, road and environmental improvements, sober home legislation and authorizing slot machines at Palm Beach Kennel Club.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, is requiring that Pafford’s bill (HB 843) clear four committees on its way to the House floor — increasing the odds that it won’t survive the two-month legislative session.
The scrub jay bill is opposed by Marion Hammer, longtime lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, who managed to sidetrack similar efforts on behalf of the bird in 1999 and 2000.
“For me to get through every hoop, basically, it’s impossible,” said Pafford, of West Palm Beach.
While Pafford’s bill has drawn four committee assignments, by contrast proposed legislation (HB 865) that would outlaw most abortions in Florida has only been sent to three committees for hearings.
Another major lifestyle-changing measure that would put the state permanently on daylight savings time (HB 893) also has been directed to three committees.
“It does illustrate the issue of who gets their priorities met in this process,” Pafford said.
Hammer says she is a fan of the mockingbird, which was named Florida’s official bird by the 1927 Senate. She also worries that switching to the scrub jay would increase environmental efforts to protect the threatened bird’s habitat, mostly coastal and interior scrub across Central Florida.
House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach and Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, have filed legislation requiring state agencies to adopt rules ensuring the restoration of black bear habitat.
The measure would require the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Department of Environmental Protection to prevent the destruction of habitat through timbering or palmetto berry harvesting on state lands.
Much of the criticism of the October hunt, Florida’s first in more than 20 years, stemmed from the view that it was designed to randomly kill the animals when they generally only prove a problem when they come close to residential areas seeking food.
The largest share of bears killed were in the state’s more sparsely populated eastern Panhandle region. Overall, more than 20 percent of the bears killed were lactating females, meaning orphaned cubs were left following the hunt.
“We need to apply a scientific-based approach founded upon sound research to protect our citizens and Florida’s black bear population,” said Soto, whose bill is SB 1096.
“From preventing new dangerous encounters, to providing funding for bear-proof garbage pails, along with defining and protecting bear habitat and food sources, we have filed this new legislation as a starting point to establish a comprehensive solution for the future,” he said.
Added Pafford, “Anything to help Floridians and Florida black bears live together more successfully is a good thing for the people and the wildlife. I think this bill moves us in the right direction.”
“We could run a substantial deficit in recurring revenue,” said Senate Budget Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, about the governor’s overall $1 billion tax cut plan — $770 million of it stemming from the proposal to permanently eliminate the corporate income tax on manufacturers and retailers.
Lee said lawmakers may be willing to drain that kind of money from the state treasury. But, he added, “I want to make sure the Legislature is aware of what might result.”
At the same time, Scott has proposed a $79.3 billion state budget that includes a $507.3 million increase in school spending. But more than 80 percent of those new dollars for schools would come from increased property tax revenue – not from other state revenues.
Rising property values are causing homeowners and businesses to shell out more.
Scott denies this increase should be called a tax increase because, he says, his plan would hold the state’s school tax rate constant.
Lawmakers in both parties have attacked Scott’s argument.
“I personally would have a very, very difficult time voting for a property tax increase, while claiming that I am cutting taxes,” said Republican Sen. Don Gaetz, a former Senate president from Niceville.