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Council members discuss their legislative priorities

Mark Parker

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City councilmembers will prioritize affordable housing, transportation and infrastructure funding. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

The St. Petersburg City Council hopes lawmakers will help them address critical issues in the next legislative session through a “dynamic” affordable housing package and a “historic influx” in transportation funding.

Acting as the Legislative Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations (LAIR) Committee, six of eight council members heard updates from the city’s federal and state lobbyists and discussed their respective legislative priorities. Expectations are high for both levels of government to provide much-needed money for housing, infrastructure and environmental resiliency projects.

Robert Diamond, a partner with Capitol Counsel and the city’s advocate in Washington, D.C., began his presentation by noting that several federal initiatives await the Nov. 8 election results. However, he explained that city officials should prepare for a windfall in transportation, infrastructure and climate-related funding stemming from two “generational” pieces of legislation.

“This is the first year where there is a major influx – and when I say ‘major,’ I mean a historic influx of federal transportation dollars to the state,” said Diamond. “So, it behooves the city to be conscious of that and be very focused …”

He added that city officials should take an aggressive posture when applying for that funding, which would also take collaboration between them and their counterparts in the county and state governments.

Councilmember Gina Driscoll expressed that she would like to see more electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure. Diamond said $7.5 billion in federal money is now moving to states to build charging facilities.

The first phase, he explained, is limited to interstate corridors, although a subsequent discretionary program begins early next year. Diamond said he recently spoke with city administration about the application process for $1.5 billion worth of grants that allow municipalities to build EV charging stations on publicly owned land, like parks and libraries.

“One of the big things that I want to make sure that we go after in the most aggressive form that we can is infrastructure,” said Councilmember Ed Montanari. “Bridges, roadways – our airport (Albert Whitted) needs capital improvements, and we’ve got a mayor right now that wants to take a pause on the airport, but that’s on my list also.”

Housing

While Diamond said he is unaware of any current federal affordable housing and insurance initiatives, officials expect state lawmakers to address both immediately after the Nov. 8 election.

Laura Boehmer, a partner with The Southern Group and the city’s Tallahassee representative, noted that incoming Senate President Kathleen Passidomo is a staunch proponent of creating affordable housing solutions tailored to specific cities.

“Her entire leadership is going to be about this,” said Gabbard. “What I’m hoping is a really dynamic housing package that could contain lots of different things.”

Councilmember Lisset Hanewicz said she would like to provide tax credits and financing options for homeowners that offer accessory dwelling units as affordable housing options. Driscoll mentioned the state statute regarding rent control is overly ambiguous and outdated and said she would like to see state lawmakers modernize and clarify the language.

“We were not the only city or government entity that grappled with that this year,” said Driscoll. “So, I’d love to see that cleaned up,”

Before the governor’s veto, the plan was for USF to rebuild and transform the Marine Science Labs at the College of Marine Science (pictured) into the USF Interdisciplinary Center for Excellence and Oceanographic Sciences (EOS). Photo by Mark Parker.

Education and research priorities

Council members also broached educational initiatives, specifically through the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Those included securing funding for the Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences Research Facility (EOS) and the Florida Flood Hub.

The governor vetoed $75 million appropriated by the legislature for the EOS in June. He also failed to distribute $175 million – including $15 million for the Flood Hub – by the newly created Local Supports Grants Program’s Sept. 30 deadline.

In addition to those projects, Montanari said he would like to see a College of Nursing on the St. Petersburg campus. Term-limited Sen. Jeff Brandes spearheaded that initiative, and Montanari hopes to find a new local champion for the program.

Montanari also expressed his desire to see the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) move a federal office from Virginia to the Port of St. Petersburg, adjacent to the Innovation District’s Maritime and Defense Technology Hub and neighboring the USFSP College of Marine Science.

Driscoll noted her participation in frequent discussions with several stakeholders regarding constructing a second building for the Hub on that vacant land.

“NOAA is definitely part of that equation, we hope,” she said. “So, perhaps by the Dec. 8 meeting, I’ll have an update on that and what a more specific ask could be for the state and federal level.”

Gabbard said the LAIR Committee would finalize its priorities and meet with the city’s newly elected delegation at its Dec. 8 meeting.

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