The Florida Legislature ended their session April 30, and the Collier County Board of Commissioners heard the After-Action Report during their meeting on May 11, 2021.
State lobbyist for Collier County, Lisa Hurley from Smith, Bryan, and Myers in Tallahassee, spoke about the different atmosphere at the capital this year. Typically, lobbyists live at the capital where they have continual access to our elected representatives. COVID protocols meant virtual and limited meetings – the capital was closed to everyone. So, while business still got done, it was done differently than before. The capital is now fully open and will be ready for the new legislative session slated to begin this fall. Hurley was happy to report that Collier County ended up coming out very well despite all these obstacles. The county was strategic in what was being asked for, and the strong presence of our legislative delegation helped. She specifically mentioned Kathleen Passidomo, Bob Rommel, and freshman Lauren Melo.
Just a few months ago the state was projecting a budget deficit of three billion dollars. But then, economic forecasts started looking up; recovery in Florida was better than expected and the state received a huge influx of federal funds. Legislators were anticipating large cuts to various industries but were able to change course when there was almost 10 billion dollars more available. In the end, they passed a budget over 101 billion dollars, a record budget for the state.
John Mullens, Collier County Government Affairs Manager, got down to the nitty gritty with the following statistics: there were 3,140 bills and proposed committee bills filed during this legislative cycle. A total of 275 bills passed. This is more than usual – last year 210 passed. Mullen posited that the lack of lobbyists there to talk them out of things (whether advocating or opposing) allowed more to pass. Collier County was tracking 593 of the bills.
So, what did Collier County get in the budget? Because of the conservative revenue forecast and the lack of assurance on federal help, the county’s requests were modest. With the improved forecast and the federal help, Collier has $250,000 approved for the Golden Gate Senior Center Expansion Design and $250,000 for the Lake Park Boulevard Capital Improvements and Water Quality Flowway. The County also received an unexpected bonus – 25 million dollars for the construction of a new National Guard Readiness Center in Immokalee, something that has been discussed for the past three years. Mullens cautions that the governor does have line-item veto authority on the budget and while it is not expected to be exercised, it should be noted.
One of the main winners in the new budget was the environment. Additional federal relief dollars certainly helped with over $10 million each being allotted for increased water quality monitoring and innovative technologies to protect water quality. Over $460 was allocated for Everglades restoration projects (this includes a $59 million federal bonus) and over $600 million for funding wastewater grants (this includes a federal bonus of $500 million). Beach and inlet management, Resilient Coastline Initiative received money plus $400 million for Florida Forever land acquisition and protection that prioritizes areas that “preserve, protect or enhance wildlife habitats or corridors and linkages”.
The flip side to the good budget news was the number of preemption bills passed. A preemption bill is when the state restricts or withdraws the authority of lower levels of government to act on issues. Hurley said that the COVID measures impacted local government entities that usually band together to help fight some of these bills. Without that physical presence, she says some the preemption bills passed that normally wouldn’t have and hopes that future sessions can fix them. Some of the passed preemption bills were regarding local occupational licensing, consumer protection measures against card skimming at gas pumps, home-based businesses and the development and siting of fuel retailers.
The state extended the disaster preparedness tax holiday and back-to-school tax holiday to 10 days. The disaster preparedness is May 28 through June 6 and back-to-school July 31 through August 9. They also instituted a new “recreation” tax holiday July 1 through July 7. Admission to certain events and purchases of sports equipment, outdoor supplies and items, boating and water activities supplies and camping and fishing supplies will be tax exempt.
There had been talk that commissioners would have to run for re-election after redistricting. That has been stricken from the bill and so commissioners do not have to run again until their term is up.
As has been the case for the past two years, the Vacation Rental Bill died at the state level. Collier was working on its own ordinance but held off due to possible state conflicts. Commissioner Solis believes the County should go ahead with their plans. Commissioner McDaniel mentions that the County is preempted from regulating length of stays on vacation rentals, but Solis says that the County can require registration and other measures to help with code enforcement. Mr. Mullens mentions that one of the iterations of the now defunct state Vacation Rentals bill did provide for a registration. Commissioner Solis points to the fact that the County has waited for two years for the state to initiate a bill but nothing has changed and so it is up to the county to decide to do something. His concern is that the vacation rental units are exploding, and the issues neighborhoods are facing are not going to get any better. He asks the Commissioners to address vacation rentals in a meaningful way that considers neighborhoods and the people who have the vacation rentals. It is being put on the schedule for board to consider.
The controversial MCORES was repealed. This is the law that would have created three toll roads through underdeveloped and environmentally sensitive areas of the state. Proponents said the roads would help future growth. Critics pointed to the degradation of the environment and critical watersheds. The repeal still needs the approval of Governor DeSantis.
And lastly, the Big Cypress Basin issue that took up much of the commissioner’s time this past winter was withdrawn from consideration by the bill’s sponsor. It may or may not be brought up again. Both bills were in their second reading.