PROGRESS ON PRIORITIES
TRANSFORMING TEACHER PAY
Many schoolteachers on the front lines of educating Florida’s future leaders have not seen a pay raise in years. According to the National Education Association, Florida ranked 26th in the nation for starting teacher pay at $37,636 (in 2017-18). This year my colleagues and I pushed to improve new and veteran teacher pay in 2020 by approving a $500 million investment in teacher compensation. We also established the Teacher Salary Increase Allocation to school districts. Districts (including charter schools) must use their funds to raise the minimum base salary for full-time classroom teachers, including certified pre-K teachers, to at least $47,500 or the maximum amount achievable. They must also provide salary increases to either full-time classroom teachers whose minimum base salary did not increase or increased by less than 2 percent and/or other instructional personnel. We also passed more measures to keep our kids safe in our schools. Florida’s K-12 students should feel confident in their safety on the way to and from and at school. From strengthening penalties for passing a stopped school bus to establishing protections for student-athletes, the 2020 Legislature championed kids’ safety through various policy proposals.
Florida should promote all adoptions, from our foster care system, or private adoptions, or for mothers who would carry to term if there were better options. ADOPTION IS THE BETTER OPTION.
This year I sponsored House Bill 61 that opened more avenues for adoption in our state. In Florida, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) provides child welfare services, including adoption services, through community-based care lead agencies contracted by DCF. Adoption is a method of achieving permanency for children who have suffered abuse, neglect, or abandonment and who are unable to be reunified with their parents. In 2015, the Legislature re-established an adoption benefit program administered by DCF for state employees who adopt children from the foster care system. Qualifying adopting employees receive a one-time benefit of $10,000 for the adoption of a child with special needs and $5,000 for the adoption of a child who does not have such needs. The program currently has a $2,750,000 recurring general revenue appropriation. Funding is accessed on a first-come, first-served basis; 225 employees received the adoption benefit in FY 2018-19. Eligible employees who may receive an adoption benefit include nontemporary employees, either full- or part-time, of a state agency, which is defined to also include school districts, state universities and colleges, and water management districts, among others. This legislation signed by Governor DeSantis extends this benefit to other-personal-services (temporary) employees who have been employed full- or part-time by a state agency for one year; and veterans or servicemembers domiciled within Florida, regardless of whether employed by the state.
Palm Beach County is one of the best places to live in the United States. Yes, we have an affordable housing crisis. Governments must continually evaluate their tax revenue policy for its impact on housing availability and prices. State government looks to innovation, transparency, and accountability in its laws so that its citizens can make better decisions for their families, their businesses, their local governments, and the environment. We must bring the same accountability to state and local affordable housing programs. The main goal is to provide a consistent and reliable stream of state tax dollars to local governments that have a practical incentive-based affordable housing program and complimentary regulatory policy. This year I am proud to say we provided the full funding of $370 million to the Sadowski Trust fund for affordable housing.
HOMESTEAD EXEMPTION BENEFITS EXTENSION SET FOR NOVEMBER ELECTION
Local governments impose and collect ad valorem taxes on real and tangible personal property within Florida. All property in Florida is subject to taxation and must be assessed at just value unless an exemption or exception is authorized by the Florida Constitution. Under the homestead exemption, persons with legal and equitable title in real property on which they or their dependent permanently reside may have a portion of the just value of their property exempted from taxation. A homestead property must be assessed at just value, which may only be increased by up to 3 percent every year pursuant to the Save Our Homes (SOH) assessment limitation. The accumulated difference between the just value and the assessed value is the SOH benefit. Homestead property owners may transfer the SOH benefit to a new homestead if the new homestead is established by January 1 of the second year after the abandonment of their old homestead. The joint resolution proposes an amendment to the Florida Constitution extending the period to transfer the SOH assessment limitation from a prior homestead to a new homestead by an additional year. If passed, the SOH benefit can be transferred to a new homestead if established by January 1 of the third year after the abandonment of the old homestead. The joint resolution sponsored by Representative Roth will be presented to the voters at the 2020 general election, and take effect January 1, 2021, if passed by 60%. It is a significant benefit to Florida property taxpayers to have a 2-year minimum to transfer the SOH benefit.
FOOD PRODUCTION AND CHARITABLE FOOD BANKS
Both food production in general and charitable food banks specifically are important to Florida’s economy and our health. As a farmer myself I can tell you that Florida agriculture is a national treasure. Few people truly understand the complexity and dedication of time and resources necessary to feed America and the world. Florida farmers are uniquely positioned to provide charitable food to our most needy and to our children.
FLORIDA FARM TO SCHOOL PROGRAM
This year I sponsored House Bill 973, and it was intended to provide more accountability to the program. It included provisions that required specific receipts to the county school nutrition program. I also sponsored the Feeding Florida Healthy Food Initiative Appropriation. This is a network of 12 Food Banks that deliver food into all of Florida’s 67 counties through direct distribution and a network of over 2200 partner agencies. Last year the network moved over 300 million pounds of food, of which over 52 million pounds was fresh fruits and vegetables from Florida’s farmers. The network’s collective budget receives 86% from individual and corporate contributions, and 10.2% from government support, most federal programs. Approximately 8% is spent on farm-fresh food recovery. Due to CoVid-19 our Food Bank network has increased food delivery by 70%. I will continue to encourage the needy to use our Food Bank network and all others to support it through monetary donations.
WATER AND NATURAL RESOURCES CONSERVATION
Florida’s agriculture and tourist economy and our way of life are directly linked to our land and water resources. Fishing, diving, boating, camping, and other outdoor activities help attract 115 million visitors to Florida every year. With the change in federal tax laws and regulations, the U.S. economy is booming, and people are moving to Florida. We must promote smart growth now, not urban sprawl. Florida needs to return to its pre-2009 history and protect our most sensitive waters and lands primarily through land conservation and limited acquisition of pristine land and water resources.
FLORIDA FOREVER AND OTHER CONSERVATION MEASURES
This year we passed legislation for land and natural resource preservation. This included the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and the Florida Forever Conservation Easements. Conservation easements protect land at a fraction of the cost of outright purchase. This has allowed a doubling amount of the land we can protect and more land remains on the tax rolls. The Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLP) has been partnering with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to leverage state and federal dollars to protect more land and be efficient with limited tax dollars. They also partner with the military to buffer military bases for national security. The funding of the RFLPP obligates funds necessary for these protections. The RFLPP is focused on sustainable agriculture that keeps the land out of development. Ranching is low-intensity land use, and the alternative is not something better. Both of these programs are needed to protect water and wildlife. The House and Senate worked together in a bipartisan manner to set aside $690 million for the Florida Forever Program for land conservation, and millions more for beach restoration and coral reef protection.