Safety and security, the economy and hurricane recovery were among the topics discussed by officials at the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce Politics in St. Johns Legislative Update on March 23.
Congressman John Rutherford, state Sen. Travis Hutson, state Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, state Rep. Paul Renner and St. Johns County Commission Chair Henry Dean addressed these issues, and several others, with business leaders from across the county at the event held at the Renaissance in World Golf Village. The update served as an opportunity for attendees to hear from state officials after the Florida legislature recently adjourned its annual session.
First, Rutherford focused on the economy, national security and infrastructure. The District 4 representative noted that Congress has extensively utilized the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allows Congress to pull any regulatory recommendation back within a specific timeframe. In fact, he said Congress used the CRA process 15 times within the first six months and pulled $4.5 billion out of the economy in regulatory changes.
Rutherford also discussed Congress’ efforts to “plus up” the military, citing the $700 billion military budget it recently approved. Among several other issues, Rutherford said he’s working with FEMA and the Florida Division of Emergency Management to address beach renourishment.
Hutson followed Rutherford and discussed higher education and school safety. He spoke about the state’s Bright Futures Scholarship, which will now provide students with 100 percent tuition reimbursement if they qualify. Students can also qualify for tuition reimbursement of 75 percent.
Concerning safety, Hutson addressed what he called the “Parkland bill,” or Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on March 9. He noted that those who threaten danger in a school setting will now be charged with a second-degree felony, with a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Hutson added that funding is included in the legislation for metal detectors, single points of entry and better surveillance equipment, as well as mental health. In addition, the state senator addressed what he called the “Marshall Program,” which allows certain school faculty/staff to be armed, provided that they complete 144 hours of training with the local sheriff’s department, mental health evaluations, active shooter drills and other requirements. The only time these individuals would be allowed to pull the firearm out of the holster, Hutson said, is if someone said, “active shooter or active threat.”
Hutson also noted that the legislation requires all individuals purchasing firearms from a licensed gun dealer to be 21 years old. The state senator noted that individuals under 21 can still purchase firearms via private transactions, such as at a gun show.
Renner addressed the state’s tax package for this year. He noted that the legislature reduced the tax on business rent from 5.8 percent to 5.7 percent, which equates to $27 million of savings per year.
Renner said the legislature implemented a change that allows those who lost their homes from Hurricanes Matthew and Irma to receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. A disaster preparedness holiday was also added to allow individuals to prepare for storms, and sales tax exemptions were made available for farmers whose property is damaged from a storm.
Stevenson addressed several miscellaneous budgetary items. She said $1 billion was budgeted for mental health and substance abuse, outside of what was allocated following the Parkland shooting. The state representative also said the budget provides $65 million to support Florida’s fight against the Opioid epidemic, as well as $6 million to expand services for victims of human trafficking.
On a more local level, Stevenson said $450,000 was invested to repair the breach at Summer Haven in St. Augustine, and 100 percent funding was approved for the expansion of the sanitary sewer in West Augustine. In general, she said $62 million was allocated for beach restoration across the state.
Dean wrapped up the morning by discussing hurricane recovery and economic development. He said the county went through two Christmas holidays without receiving one dollar from FEMA. However, thanks to a recent letter from Hutson to Gov. Scott, the county recently received its first $1 million, and the money is still coming, Dean said.
The county commissioner also called 2017 “gangbusters” in respect to economic development, citing the PGA Tour’s decision to build a new worldwide headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach.
“We’re on the right track to move this county ahead even further in respect to economic development and business growth,” said Dean.