Fla. legislators face grilling on schools, budget

Outgoing Senate President Joe Negron and state Reps. Erin Grall and Larry Lee Jr. faced a crowd of local business and community leaders last week, finding themselves in the hot seat and facing questions about the state’s budget priorities, school safety and the arts.

The annual luncheon, hosted by the St. Lucie County Chamber of Commerce, was the community’s chance to hear from the local legislative delegates on what got done this past session and what’s on the horizon.

“We have to let schools have options,” Sen. Negron said, responding to one attendee’s question about the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act. The attendee questioned the non-requirement of having armed guards or officers at schools.

Negron said that, while he personally supports having someone trained with a gun at schools, each School District should be allowed to make that call for themselves.

Under the Public Safety Act, teachers are excluded from being allowed to be armed. Instead, School Districts – such as St. Lucie’s – can partner with local enforcement agencies or provide their own qualified, trained officers, or allow certain non-teaching members of staff go through the training and certification to be armed on campus.

Negron said that moving forward, the state should encourage School Districts to provide their security officers with other roles at their assigned schools.

St. Lucie’s school resource deputies and officers already are tasked with other support functions when not responding to or preventing emergencies. They foster relationships with the student body and provide another friendly face.

The legislators were also asked about their support for providing for all students – not just those who plan on attending college. “I need help,” one attendee pleaded, explaining that she sees little support for students with autism. She noted that daycares are not trained on how to care for such students.

“What are we going to do for them?” she asked.

Negron agreed the state needs to do more to support students of all abilities and pointed her to various state-funded programs and scholarships that can be used to cover the cost of therapies, special education and other opportunities.

The legislators were taken to task for cutting the state’s funding for arts and culture. An attendee pointed out that Florida was – not that long ago – 10th in the country for funding the arts. Now, it’s 48 out of 50. She questioned how she and others were to trust that legislators won’t further cut funding.

“I think this year was an aberration,” Negron said. He pointed out that with the costs associated with Hurricane Irma, the Public Safety Act, and cost overruns with Medicaid, the state had to cut other programming to balance the budget.

Rep. Lee Jr. noted that he had sponsored a bill to establish the Florida Highwaymen license plate, which would have generated revenues to form the Florida Highwaymen Museum. The bill died in committee, though.

Rep. Grall noted during the luncheon that legislators again approved two sales tax holidays, one of which will be in effect the first week of June for emergency preparedness items. The other will be a few days in early August for Back to School shopping.   

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