Their ranks swollen to 250, Palm Beach County business, education and government officials descended on Florida’s Capitol like shock troops Tuesday, determined to bend every ear and slap any back.
Much has changed about the Florida Legislature over the decades. Favors and gifts are no longer lavishly bestowed in the open. Some of the hyper-partisanship that has gripped Washington, D.C., has found its way to Tallahassee.
But as Palm Beach County Days made clear this week, there’s still value in good, old-fashioned networking — showing up with numbers to thank your friends, forestall your foes and make the case that your issues are every bit as pressing as those in any other area.
In the power-soaked realm of shiny shoes and cuff links, “Thank you” can be just as potent a phrase as “Will you?”
And so it was Wednesday that 60 people crowded into and around a conference room among the suite of offices occupied by the state’s chief financial officer, Jeff Atwater.
CFOs don’t write legislation, and they don’t have veto power.
Still, Atwater isn’t merely a numbers cruncher. He’s a North Palm Beach native and former president of the state Senate. He had juice in the Capitol, and he used it.
County officials credit him with helping to secure funding for Palm Beach State College’s Loxahatchee campus.
The legislative session that began Tuesday will be Atwater’s last in Tallahassee. He’s leaving for a job as chief financial officer at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
It is entirely possible, likely even, that, as future contingents travel to Tallahassee to push for county priorities, Atwater will be among them. He will go from beseeched to beseecher.
For now, he’s a man with connections who might still be able to help the county on a variety of fronts: making the case to Republican power brokers in Washington for federal reimbursement for costs associated with President Donald Trump’s frequent visits; encouraging the passage of legislation that would fund state agencies charged with helping bring tourists and businesses to Florida; pushing for regulation of sober homes and for legislation to help the county combat the mushrooming scourge of opioid and heroin abuse.
The county also wants more money for road and water projects in the Glades and help with affordable housing. And it opposes a pair of bills it says would curtail its authority to regulate businesses.
A numbers cruncher couldn’t get the ear of the governor or powerful legislators, but Atwater isn’t a technocrat.
County Administrator Verdenia Baker and her deputy administrator, Jon Van Arnam, were joined at the conference table by Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson and county Commissioners Mack Bernard and Dave Kerner.
Fire rescue officials, members of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County and others crowded around.
A box containing a plaque and a set of decorative beads, handed out as attention-getting tokens, was placed on the conference table by Assistant County Administrator Todd Bonlarron.
Atwater entered the room to a standing ovation as Bonlarron presented him with the county’s tokens of appreciation.
“We want to thank you for always being so accommodating to us,” said Bonlarron, who has done the county’s bidding in Tallahassee for nearly two decades.
Bonlarron motioned to the packed room.
“These are your constituents, your homeboys and homegirls,” he said.
As Atwater stood before them, they wasted no time telling him what they want.
Bernard, a former state legislator, said the county wants no more unfunded mandates, help with the opioid crisis and housing, and funding for the state’s tourism and business recruitment agencies, Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida.
“Another issue that’s important to us is higher education,” Bernard said.
“I’m all for it,” Atwater said as those in the room laughed.
Atwater gave them an insider’s assessment of the state’s finances, but he acknowledged the limitations of his influence.
West Palm Beach Commissioner Shanon Materio noted the escalating costs of Trump’s trips.
“We all could use some financial relief,” she said.
Atwater responded: “I wish I could make a phone call and knock it out.”
The acknowledgement that he can’t didn’t dim enthusiasm for meeting with him, and Atwater appeared relaxed and excited about working with many in the room as he starts his next job.
“It’s good to be coming home,” he said.
Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, now swings the gavel Atwater once swung.
And he, too, has a connection to the county. The northwest corner of the county, from Jupiter Farms Wellington and west to South Bay, is a part of his Senate district.
County officials trekked from Atwater’s offices over to those of Negron. Some slipped away to go meet with other legislators, but most stayed to meet with Negron, now one of the most powerful figures in the Capitol.
Like Atwater, county officials see Negron as an important ally. He noted his work for the county as he met with its officials.
“Todd and I go way back,” Negron said as he looked to Bonlarron. “We’ve pulled a lot of oxes out of a lot of ditches.”
Now, though, as Negron reaches the pinnacle of Senate power, his ability to help the county may be curtailed.
Negron is no longer merely answerable to voters in a particular Senate district; through his fellow senators, he’s now answerable to voters in all Senate districts.
After county officials made their pitch for help, he explained the new realities of his position.
“My request would be that you talk to House members,” he said. “Let’s make sure the House carries its fair share of the load.”
Negron said, “I’m always going to represent my community,” but added his ability to keep county priorities on track won’t be the same going forward.
“I can’t go single-handedly bailing out anything the House doesn’t do,” he said. “I can’t go rescue every single issue this time.”
The blunt talk didn’t dissuade county officials. Baker said she appreciated Negron’s honesty rather than making lofty promises he had no intention of keeping.
Visits with state Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lake Worth and with Republican Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera were next on the agenda for most county officials, but they first popped in on one of their most determined advocates, state Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Boynton Beach.
No fewer than four of the bills the county and the Economic Council of Palm Beach County want to see passed this session are sponsored by Abruzzo, who greeted county and economic council officials as the old pals they are to him.
He told them he didn’t need to get their sales pitch.
“You had me at hello,” Abruzzo said.
County Mayor Paulette Burdick noted the county’s push to get funding for water and road projects in the Glades.
“We know you’ll work hard on our Glades issues,” she said.
“You don’t have to ask me about that,” said Abruzzo, who has sponsored several pieces of legislation to fund projects in the Glades. “I’m up here for all of the people in this room. Your priorities are my priorities. You have me all the way. The answer is, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’”
Berman offered a similar welcome when county officials got to her. She said she wants to see something done to help those with mental illnesses, a problem that strains law enforcement and health care systems.
“Mental health is related to everything,” she said.
Most years, the details of county meetings with legislators aren’t recorded at the time. Reporters aren’t present.
Bonlarron sought and received permission from several lawmakers to allow a Palm Beach Post reporter to sit in on some of the meetings.
Lopez-Cantera agreed to meet with county officials, but he would not allow a reporter to be present.
Bonlarron said the county’s pitch to him was similar to the pitch it made to other officials.
County and economic council officials were weary by late afternoon when they met with state Rep. David Silvers, D-West Palm Beach, but they stopped in on him, too.
Silvers has sponsored legislation to fund job training programs at Palm Beach State College.
The meeting with Silver was quick, and, as was the case with Berman and Abruzzo, there was much agreement on priorities.
In all, county and economic council members had at least 59 meetings with legislators and cabinet members on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The county’s massive contingent of 250 people, with some driving six hours to Tallahassee and others taking circuitous flights to the capital, had an impact, Bonlarron said.
On a host of issues, county officials planted seeds they hoped would grow into favorable policy as the session unfolds.
The county has had success in the past, and Bonlarron said the hope is that this year’s session will also see the passage of legislation the county backs and the rejection of other bills it opposes.
“Almost half of the Legislature has had someone from Palm Beach County in front of them,” he said of this week’s full court press. “We have a high bar that we set.”
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