Local officials share accomplishments from recent legislative session at chamber breakfast


Providing bonuses for St. Johns County teachers, increasing state-wide funding for mental health and substance abuse and revising and improving Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida were among the accomplishments of the 2017 legislative session shared by local officials at the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Council breakfast last week.

Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, Sen. Travis Hutson, Rep. Paul Renner and St. Johns County Commission Chair James Johns provided these updates to business leaders from around the county at the Chamber event July 28 at the Renaissance in World Golf Village.

Hutson shared highlights from HB 7069, an education bill that he played a large role in writing. Most notably, the state senator shared that the bill will extend the Best and Brightest Scholarship Program, resulting in several bonuses for “effective” and “highly effective” St. Johns County teachers. 850 teachers will qualify for $800 bonuses this year, next year and the year after, he said. 1,300 teachers, he continued, will qualify for $1,200 bonuses each of the next three years. An additional 200 teachers, he stated, will qualify to receive $6,000 bonuses each of the next three years.

Hutson explained that other results of the bill include conducting a study to replace the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) with another federally funded test that is more suitable for teachers; allowing schools more flexibility to shift the schedule of their testing; expanding funding for the Gardiner Scholarship, which supports kids with rare diseases and disabilities; and requiring 20 minutes of recess each day for kindergarten through fifth grade students. One controversial aspect of the bill, Hutson noted, is the fact that it allows high-performing charter schools to establish more than one charter school in any year if it operates in the area of a persistently low-performing school and serves kids from that school.

The state senator also reported that the 2017 legislative session resulted in increasing the Bright Futures Scholarship for a child from 50 percent to 100 percent tuition reimbursement.

“If your child qualifies for Bright Futures, the state of Florida is going to pay the way,” Hutson said, adding that this will take effect next year. “We want you in and out in four years with well-paying jobs so you can come back and contribute.”

Rep. Stevenson provided a high-level overview of the state budget, sharing that it only increased by less than a quarter of a percent, or less than $10 per person. She emphasized, however, that the state increased funding for schools by 4 percent and higher education by 7 percent. Although health care funding slightly decreased, she said the state maintained strong priorities, enhancing funding for mental health and substance abuse, especially for efforts to combat the Opioid epidemic.

“I think we need to start calling this what it is,” she said. “People are dying from injecting heroine and the new drug we hear, fentanyl.”

Among several other items of local, state and federal interest, Stevenson noted that St. Johns County will benefit from $13.3 million in funding to repair damage to its beaches post-Hurricane Matthew, and overall, she said several state employees will receive pay raises for the first time in 10 years.

Rep. Renner discussed two programs he said he played a part in improving: Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.

Enterprise Florida, he explained, is a program in which taxpayer money is given to private sector companies to lure them into Florida or keep them within the state.
In the past, he said, this money has been given to companies with more than 1,000 employees, leaving many small businesses out to dry and creating a system of “winners and losers.” In addition, he said tax payers generally expect their tax dollars to be used for something that can help them, and this wasn’t always the case with Enterprise Florida previously.

With the revised bill, Renner explained that the monies now can’t be used for any single company; they must be distributed to a multitude of companies to allow for competition. In addition, he said the tax monies must be devoted to either infrastructure or workforce development.

Renner said that the legislature’s recent efforts on Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing corporation, have resulted in more stringent accountability measures to ensure money for the program is being used for advertising.

St. Johns County Commission Chair James Johns concluded the presentations by discussing a recent trip he took to Washington, D.C., to meet with representatives from various federal agencies, including the Department of Transportation, Federal Emergency Management Agency and others. When he first received an invite for the meeting, he thought it was a prank.

“This administration says that they do not feel like they have communication lines with local governments and they wanted to change that,” Johns said. “We were all blown away.”

During a question and answer session at the end of event, Johns also discussed his stance on the potential implementation of a bed tax to generate additional revenue for the county.

“One of the most important things to me is not just generating revenues to meet our needs but making sure we’re all on the same page as to what the end result is expected to be,” he said. “I want to make sure that place we’re intending to spend it is where you want it spent when we collect it. And so, if this is the mechanism by which the majority of the people want an issue resolved, then I would gladly support that effort.”

On a similar note regarding a potential increase to the county’s sales tax, Johns said following the breakfast he needs the majority of the county to support it before he will, and he also wants more clarity to be established concerning how those monies would be spent.

“I don’t want to spend people’s money without knowing where it will be spent,” he said.
The next EDC breakfast is Nov. 17.