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Local lawmakers put people over politics

Mark Parker



State Rep. Lindsay Cross (left) and Sen. Darryl Rouson relayed their legislative priorities at a St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon Friday. Photos by Mark Parker.

St. Petersburg’s state legislators are eschewing the rampant partisanship currently dominating state and national politics to bolster education, healthcare, housing and environmental sustainability throughout the city.

Those were the overarching themes of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2023 Legislative Preview. Success in those areas will support job creation and a healthy workforce, as the lawmakers noted.

The event, held Friday at The Exchange Hotel, featured Rep. Linda Chaney (R), Rep. Michelle Rayner-Goolsby (D), Rep. Lindsay Cross (D) and Sen. Darryl Rouson (D). Erica Riggins, chief information officer for the City of St. Petersburg, moderated the discussion.

The region is home to seven senators, and Rouson began by noting he is the only one with constituents on both sides of the bay. He also kicked off the recurring refrain that leaders best achieve results through cooperation.

“When you, in your 15 years in Tallahassee, have never served in the majority, it makes it kind of difficult to get things done,” Rouson explained. “But I pride myself on being a moderate Democrat who seeks to collaborate on important issues to get things done for my constituents.”

Cross noted her first bill as a representative related to affordable housing. She filed the legislation after receiving feedback from some attendees and other local elected officials.

She noted that affordable housing is a priority for Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, and Cross believes lawmakers “will make some traction” on the matter this year. She said a bipartisan group of legislators included its language in a much larger package focused on renters.

“But this is certainly not the last time we’ll be talking about this,” Cross said. “We do need to do more to make homeownership more affordable, and look how we can support groups like Habitat for Humanity.”

Rouson noted he co-sponsored that bill and called it the most significant housing legislation in 25 years.

While its passage would preempt local governments from passing any form of rent control, he said it also adds $711 million in new money and fully finances the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund for the first time in years. Rouson will present the legislation to the Senate Appropriations Committee next week.

From left: Rep. Linda Chaney, Rep. Michelle Rayner-Gooby and Erica Riggins, chief information officer for the City of St. Petersburg.

Rayner-Goolsby is working on bills to lower prescription drug prices and expand employee family leave programs. She also expressed her passion for helping to increase access to nutrition, and said “food is medicine.”

She said the legislation would allow local governments to convert residentially zoned areas to commercial uses for “specific, small-footprint grocery stores.”

Rayner-Goolsby explained how that would make fresh fruit, vegetables and meats more obtainable for people who lack transportation and live in areas considered food deserts to access. She added that many grocers support the bill.

“What’s great about this bill is that it has bipartisan support,” Rayner-Goolsby said. “It’s really just a good policy to ensure that our people have access to the things they need to have healthy and equitable lives.”

Chaney, who represents western St. Petersburg and the beaches, relayed how she seeks to balance environmental and business sustainability. One aspect of achieving that goal is bolstering science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to create a thriving local talent pipeline.

She and Rouson have crossed the aisle to support funding the restoration of the Science Center. The former St. Petersburg institution once served up to 22,000 children daily.

Like Chaney, Rayner-Goolsby hopes to keep St. Petersburg’s youth from taking their talents elsewhere and called the St. Pete Youth Farm and the Science Center “jewels in the community.” She said legislators must pour resources into those and other organizations to ensure students and young residents have the tools needed to thrive in the city.

“STEM is really where I see a lot of growth opportunities,” Chaney said. “That’s the reason I partnered with Senator Rouson on the Science Center and have promoted STEM in our public education. But I’ve also put in appropriations for the Students to Space STEM career and workforce development program.”

Rouson noted he is uniquely familiar with increasing substance abuse, mental health and homelessness issues. The senator told attendees he would soon reach 25 years of sobriety and how he and his son once slept on the floor in his St. Petersburg office.

Those lived experiences now help guide his work to help others. Rouson announced he plans to amend and expand a bill that provides a pathway for former addicts to become peer counselors, which also garnered bipartisan support.

“Where we can train inmates returning as citizens … to become certified peer counselors before they leave prison,” Rouson said. “Nothing can be more powerful than a recovering addict reaching back and helping another one.”

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