Tuesday, August 13, 67 members and guests attended the monthly meeting of the Democratic Women’s Club of Marco. The group warmly welcomed Florida Senator Kathleen Passidomo, Senate Majority Leader. The Senator gave a brief ½ hour introduction and then opened the floor for questions.
Senator Passidomo began by giving a brief introduction to the Florida Legislature’s functions. She called it “Legislature 101.” The Legislature is made up of 160 Representatives, 40 Senators and 120 House Members. Most of the audience were surprised when Sen Passidomo noted that Florida legislators are considered part-time employees and earn only $28,000/year even though it really is a full-time job. Senator Passidomo’s district contains about 500,000 people and includes Collier, Lee, and parts of Hendry counties from the Gulf to Lake Okeechobee.
She said that the Florida legislature has two constitutional jobs. The first is to pass a balanced budget each year. It is usually a bi-partisan budget, passing by a large majority. In two years, they also will be required to redistrict the state based on the 2020 Census maps. In addition, the Florida legislature will consider and pass legislation. Ms. Passidomo maintained that approximately 2,500 bills are filed each year, but only 180 to 190 pass and become law. It is difficult to pass a bill into law. But, she claims that most bills get passed in a bi-partisan manner, sometimes unanimously. Most are quality of life matters such as protecting our elder citizens from exploitation from care-givers.
A few examples of Florida funding passed this year:
1. $600 million allocated for environmental programs such as the Caloosahatchee Reservoir which is slated to be completed by 2023
2. Increased funding to FGCU for research on toxic algae and red tide
1. Increased funding for K – 12 schools by adding $200 per student
2. Giving more power to individual county school districts
3. Increasing number of residencies for medical students
This year the legislature has an $80 billion budget
1. 43% goes to health care
2. 27% is allocated to education Pre K – 12 and higher
3. 20% goes to infrastructure, environment, and public safety
4. Funding for roadway repairs and for design and extending Suncoast Parkway
Senator Passidomo would like to see the little cities in the center of the state flourish with more tourism. Now, due I-75 and on one side of the state I-95 on the other, tourists skip the little towns in the middle of the state. She would also like to have funding for new roads that extend to Georgia (Hartland Parkway, complete with bike path) to boost the economy in small central-Florida towns and create another evacuation route in hurricanes. In addition she would like to improve the ports of Miami and Everglades in order to bring more goods to the northern part of Florida. Senator Passidomo claims that none of this will hurt or destroy sensitive environmental areas in the Everglades. “We want to look at where we want to be in the future and how we want to grow with the influx of people moving to Florida.”
And, next year, Senator Passidomo would like to see more money for the environment and control of gambling. She maintained that Florida is losing $600 million/year from Indian Casinos whose bill has expired, money that could go to the State.
Then, Karen Blum opened the floor for questions on six topics – Voting integrity, Restitution of Voting Rights for Felons (Amendment 4), Regulating guns, Mental Health re-guns, Marijuana, and lack of affordable housing.
1. Voting Integrity: What is Florida doing to prepare for the next election to avoid equipment malfunction, possible hacking from Russia, and instituting a paper trail of results for all 57 counties?
Senator Passidomo stated that Collier County’s system is not tied to the Internet and thus cannot be hacked, but she was unclear which other counties could be affected besides Broward. She stated that Florida is a “bottom up” system where each county is responsible for its voting process. The State of Florida has no oversight.
Collier County Supervisor of Elections, Jennifer Edwards then spoke, stating that counties are required to keep 22 months of paper trails after elections for paper back-up. Collier County abides by that rule, but Broward County, among other counties did not maintain those paper ballots. Collier County has a “clear ballot” which uses a stand-alone software. It is not connected to the internet and thus cannot be hacked. The State law requires that individual counties save images of the votes. However 64% of counties are not compliant and thus, unlike Collier County, are vulnerable.
2. Restoration of Voting Rights to Felons after Amendment #4: Why is the legislature not following the wishes of Florida voters? Why are 1.4 million felons who have completed their sentences still disenfranchised?
Senator Passidomo talked about how the legislature maintained that for felons to have their voting rights restored, according to the amendment, all fines and fees must first be paid before voting rights can be restored. There is confusion over this issue. This could amount to millions for some whose victims want restitution. She maintained that there are avenues available for people to get their vote reinstated. They can go to a judge to get their fees changed to civil fines or go to the clemency board which she said needs to meet more often.
However, Senator Passidomo said that she is more interested in putting our energy to train people in prison to have marketable skills when they are released rather than restoring their voting rights. She said that she believes that people completing their terms are more interested in jobs than voting.
4. Regulating guns: 90% of Americans support background checks. Does she support universal background checks and also banning assault weapons in the State of Florida?
Senator Passidomo said that after the Parkland shootings, the legislature outlawed bump stocks, prohibited those under 18 from purchasing guns, and passed the “Red Flag” law (police can remove weapons from suspects) by the skin of their teeth. She also said that the “1,000 pound gorilla” is the ban of assault rifles, which she said would not pass because of the constituents in the Panhandle. Senator Passidomo said, “Such a bill will not pass. We need to pass what we can do together, or we will get nothing passed. The NRA does not support the Florida Legislature. The Supreme Court does not define assault weapons.”
Another audience member asked, “Even the head of a gun range wants to ban assault weapons. Are you brave enough to vote for an assault weapons ban?”
Senator Passidomo replied, “If you lawfully own a weapon, who am I to take it away? We are talking about baby steps toward this issue. There is a Senate Committee to specifically look at the gun issue. This is more than the Florida Legislature has done in 60 years. Things move a little at a time.” The Legislature has been able to take baby steps after the Parkland shooting. They have the right to define the 2ndAmendment. Now there is a committee in the Florida Legislature to look at the gun issue. “We are going to take a look at it.”
4. Mental health and guns: What is Florida doing about mental health re guns?
Senator Passidomo said that Florida is not doing anything, but mental health money was put into the education budget. No one, Democrat or Republican, supported it. On Valentine’s Day, after Parkland, the legislature was presented with a bill for $79 million, but nothing was allocated for mental health. She specifically mentioned help for children born drug addicted, withdrawn from taudiencehe drugs, and then sent home to still drug-addicted parents.
Anissa Karim, Chair of the Collier County Democratic Party, thanked Senator Passidomo for coming and speaking, but said that access to guns is a real problem and that is the difference between the United States and other countries. New Zeeland, for example, came up with a weapons ban in six days. She concluded, “Assault weapons don’t belong here; please take this message to Tallahassee. People with mental health problems are more likely to be the victims of a shooting than the shooters.” The audience loudly applauded.
5. Question on Marijuana: Florida voters voted to allow medical marijuana, but CBD is unregulated, and claims are unsubstantiated. Was that the intent of the law?
Senator Passidomo said that Florida law no longer lists Hemp (which is what CBD comes form) as a controlled substance. Thus, there is no regulation of CBD. “ Medical marijuana is strictly controlled and must be processed in dispensaries that are clean, healthy and safe.”
6. Lack of affordable housing: There is a real lack of access to affordable housing in Collier County even though Florida is leading the country in solving this problem. We need bold action! What can we do?
Senator Passidomo said to balance the budget, the Legislature swaps trust fund monies from one project to another, and affordable housing construction suffered. She said that she is committed to helping this problem. “We need to be more creative.” She proposed to use affordable housing monies to buy up abandoned stores and empty strip mall centers along major routes to turn them into affordable apartments.She plans to do this by giving owners tax credits to incentivize strip mall and shop owners.
Senator Passidomo told the group that she had practiced law in Naples for 40 years. Thus, her main interest is “justice.” During the Summer, Senator Passidomo likes to meet with the people she represents. She regularly keeps hours in the Courthouse for citizens to come see her to talk of their concerns. You can call the Collier County Courthouse to check the hours that she is there. She maintained, “I represent everybody in this community. There are times when we don’t agree, but I’m always going to listen.”