Palm Beach County officials looking for small legislative wins in 2018

When the Florida Legislature convenes on Tuesday, Palm Beach County government leaders will have their fingers crossed.

It might be a good practice, if the flurry of activity before the session – including the resignations of Democrat Jeff Clemens and Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala – is any indication of the ride that’s ahead.

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With a Richard Corcoran-led House of Representatives sneering at any hint of tax hike, a showdown between it and Gov. Rick Scott likely is in play after Scott unveiled his final budget, a $87.4 billion plan that calls for increased education spending.

Lawmakers will review hundreds of bills over the 60-day session, meaning there will be little time for lengthy back-and-forth discussions on matters, and decisions will come down quickly.

That – coupled with the possibility of a budget fight – has local leaders edgy but prepared heading into the session.

Rebecca De La Rosa, director of legislative affairs for the county, said she “maximized” committee weeks this fall to visit with lawmakers in Tallahassee and share the county’s top priorities.

“We’re fully confident in being in the best position we can be in at this moment,” she said.

At issue for the county is some $50 million in appropriations that would combat the opioid epidemic of which Palm Beach County is at the heart. If approved, the county could receive matching funds to convert an old jail into a treatment center, De La Rosa said.

Regarding hurricane preparedness, more funding for shelter supplies like cots and mats and more money set aside for state medical staffing at shelters would be ideal, she said.

Additionally, more accountability from group homes, assisted living centers, and nursing homes is necessary in response of the multiple deaths at such facilities in the wake of Hurricane Irma, she said.

“We want…them to have what they say they have in their comprehensive plans,” she said. “We need to have confidence that facilities have plans readily available and the staff is trained.”

Andrew Watt, director of legislative affairs for Palm Beach schools, said district officials have spent the last several weeks talking with lawmakers to try to “find some middle ground” on school funding.

According to the News Service of Florida, the $770 million increase in Scott’s proposed budget includes $534 million in increased local property-tax revenue.

The proposal would increase per-student spending to $7,497, a 2.7 percent increase.

But House leaders have labeled it as a tax increase. Although the schools property tax rate wouldn’t increase under the governor’s proposal, the tax paid by most property owners would rise because of the growth in property values. House leaders instead are calling for the tax rate to be rolled back to compensate for the increase in property values.

The House’s reduction of the school tax rate the last two years is stifling efforts to hire more teachers in growing Palm Beach County, Watt said.

The district isn’t able to pull from other areas of its budget to cover new hires and other expenses that come with that growth, he said.

Getting lawmakers to fund education as it did before the recession could help alleviate the money crunch, said Palm Beach School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw.

Instead, the onus is on local entities to take on the increasing costs and find creative ways close budget gaps, he said. To that end, the School Board is considering putting a question on the November ballot that would ask voters to approve about $45 million a year in new property taxes to boost teacher salaries in the county.

“They say they don’t want new taxes but they don’t object when local counties pass tax increases to meet their needs,” Shaw said. “It’s an easy way to pass the buck.”

Richard Radcliffe, executive director of the Palm Beach County League of Cities, said attacks on the state’s “home rule” statute – like last session’s House Bill 17 which sought to “preempt the regulation of businesses, professions and occupations to the state” – has city leaders on alert for more of the same in the upcoming session.

Such policies show how state lawmakers “don’t have any understanding of local government and how it works,” he said.

“It’s kind of nerve-wrecking because we don’t know what will come of it,” said Radcliffe about efforts to redirect power from municipalities to the state.

Lawmakers should redirect their energy toward supporting local efforts to crack down on rogue treatment centers and sober homes, he said.

“There should be a mandatory registration because people have died in those homes,” Radcliffe said.

While the outlook for big wins this session appears grim, there’s hope for some small victories, Watt said.

“It’s not about getting everything we want but finding those areas where we can…build a consensus,” he said.

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