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Pinellas County lawmakers reflect on legislative session

Jaymi Butler

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Legislators will return to Tallahassee next week for a special session.

Six members of the Pinellas County delegation gathered virtually Monday afternoon to answer questions about the 2021 legislative session which wrapped up at the end of April. Participating on the panel were: 

  • Sen. Jeff Brandes
  • Rep. Linda Chaney
  • Rep. Nick DiCeglie
  • Sen. Ed Hooper
  • Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby
  • Sen. Darryl Rouson 

During the hourlong discussion, which was hosted by St. Petersburg College’s Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions, panelists reflected on what many people have branded “the Covid session,” according to Albert Kaminsky, the director of government relations for Charter Communications and moderator of Monday’s event.

While most of the legislators felt that overall, the 60-day session was productive with more than 3,000 bills filed and over 250 passed into law, many spoke of missing out on the element of human interaction due to the pandemic. 

“I would say this is a session I would never want to redo again,” Brandes said. “You miss out on the serendipity of the process.”

Hooper agreed. 

“I missed the public input and exchange of ideas probably more than anything,” he said. 

In terms of the issues that were discussed and items that passed, the panelists were generally pleased with the budget, the state’s relatively robust economy, funding for education and the efforts to balance the needs of the business community with those of the environment, especially as it relates to addressing sea level rise. 

“What the legislature did this year is we rolled up our sleeves and brought real solutions to the table and funded these solutions that are short-term and long-term to protect the residents, protect our communities, protect our infrastructure and allow the state to grow,” Chaney said. 

As far as areas of improvement, Rouson and Rayner-Goolsby both said they would have liked to see more attention paid to issues surrounding unemployment and strategies for working people. 

“Coming back after the session, I’ve heard from constituents, especially in my district, who are concerned about how the voting bill is going to affect their ability to vote,” Rayner-Goolsby said, referring to a bill signed into law last week by Gov. Ron DeSantis that imposes stricter regulations on voters. “I’m looking forward to being able to come back to our special session next week and finding some common ground with the folks in the legislature and really beginning to push for solutions that can benefit all of us.”

Additionally, Rouson expressed a level of disappointment that issues related to criminal justice weren’t addressed in greater depth. 

“We thought this was going to be a very big year for criminal justice reform but in fact, it was a watered-down year,” Rouson said. “We thought there would be a more sensitive response to the protests both locally and nationally but there’s not been the appetite for real criminal justice reform. In fact, House Bill 1, the anti-protest bill, sailed through the legislature and I think it was the first bill signed by the governor. And it was a crackdown on free speech.”

Brandes said that this topic is among the most challenging in terms of creating public policy and would like to see the system’s focus shift from punishment to public safety. Additionally, he hopes to see more second chances offered to people who deserve them and better re-entry programs for those who are being released. 

“I think there’s a concerted effort by many legislators to make changes and it’s going to take much longer than Sen. Rouson and the rest of us on this panel would like to think about, but it’s going to happen,” Brandes said. “It’s unsustainable that we stay in this current trajectory.”

Other topics of discussion included extending postpartum Medicaid coverage to new mothers for 12 months after the birth of a child, strategies on how cities can more effectively work with legislators to emphasize the importance of home rule, and the outlook for tourism and economic development. 

The next ISPS event will be held virtually Wednesday, May 26 from 12 to 1 p.m. The topic is food insecurity from an intergenerational standpoint. To register, click here.

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