The Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation Friday met virtually with members of the public to discuss local bills and issues ahead of the 2021 session. COVID-19 concerns were the underlying theme as topics including clean energy, mental health and prison reform were discussed.
Acting chair Sen. Janet Cruz acknowledged the meeting’s uniqueness straight away.
“The first thing I’ll ask you to do is please be sure to put your microphones on mute,” she said. “We love your dogs. We love your kids. But we want everyone to be able to hear the speakers.”
It was the delegations first-ever digital meeting. Another new normal in the COVID-19 era.
The first order of business was voting in the delegation’s new chair and vice chair. The chair went unanimously to Rep. Dianne Hart with Cruz being voted in as vice-chair.
More than 60 people, including private citizens and community leaders, spoke during the three-hour meeting of Republican and Democrat state legislators. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was on full display as its economic toll has left Florida with a $2 billion budget deficit going into the 2021 legislative session.
Most speakers, including Hillsborough School District Superintendent Addison Davis and Hillsborough Community College President Ken Atwater didn’t ask for any more funding. They just didn’t want to lose any.
“Maintaining funding for the 2021 school year in the legislative session will always be an ask of our district,” Davis said.
Atwater later added:
“Our top priority is very simple. It’s simply maintaining our current funding.”
Davis took his asks a little further, hoping to get the legislature to suspend grading school and district performance and eliminating high-stakes testing during the pandemic. The sentiment was echoed by Damaris Allen, president of the Florida Collaboration project.
“This is not the year to put that additional pressure on our kids, our teachers, our families, when many of them are facing evictions, things like that. Job loss, a lot of additional stressors,” Allen said.
One area that many advocates did ask for additional funding was mental health. Another area of concern exacerbated by the toll COVID-19 has taken on the population.
Lisa Montelelone of Northside Behavioral Health warned legislators not to let CARES Act funding overshadow the continued importance of state-level funding. Friday morning, Gov. Ron DeSantis said $23 million in CARES Act funding would go to statewide mental health services.
“I implore each of you not to allow this funding to replace our budget funding allocations,” Monteleone said. “CARES Act funded programs will not continue once we run out of CARES Act funds.”
Health experts and the CDC have warned that COVID-19 stressors have increased mental health issues throughout the country.
One area not directly tied to the pandemic that received plenty of attention was prison reform. Advocates called for more accountability within prison systems and the Department of Corrections and more funding for prisoner rehabilitation programs, including education opportunities.
They also asked for reform to the problematic clemency board and parole process.
Adrienne Rodriguez pleaded with the delegation.
“They don’t take into consideration the huge effort so many have put forth working toward a goal they will never achieve,” she said. “Because they are being judged by their charges rather than their merit and good behavior.”
On improving the lives of prisoners, Rep. Hart offered advocates a little hope.
“Know that we are committed to trying to ensure that we make life better for many of the people that we have visited personally throughout the 55 facilities that we have been inside of,” she said.
The delegation will meet again in February ahead of the March start to Florida’s regular legislative session.