The Senate convened for its sixth week of the annual 60-day session in Tallahassee for the purpose of holding committee meetings, as well as passing legislation through the full Senate.
Below are some highlights of week six's progress.
Plan for expansion of water storage passes
The full Senate passed Senate Bill 10, which will expand storage of water south of Lake Okeechobee by a vote of 36-3. The legislation furthers the goal of reducing, and eventually eliminating, harmful releases from the lake.
This past year, record rainfall resulted in unseasonably high water levels in Lake Okeechobee, which threatened the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike. To maintain safe water levels, the Army Corps of Engineers authorized the release of billions of gallons of water from the lake to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie River.
This legislation will make an important difference to families, communities, and the economy east and west of the lake, as well as southern communities who have waited too long for investments in meaningful economic development to expand workforce training and job opportunities.
Senate Bill 10 was amended to expressly prohibit the use of eminent domain, leveraging land already owned by the state of Florida and the South Florida Water Management District, land swaps, and purchases, to minimize impacts on agricultural workers while achieving 240,000 to 360,000 acre feet of storage. The bill also provides grants to establish training programs for agricultural workers.
The goal of the legislation was to explore all available options to deliver this much needed and long anticipated storage south of Lake Okeechobee. Senate Bill 10 is now available for the House to take up in hearings.
Senate unanimously passes budget
The Florida Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 2500, the 2017-18 General Appropriations Act. The budget prioritizes funding for Florida's Pre-K-20 public education system, while setting aside more than $3 billion in total reserves, and making critical investments in Florida's state workforce.
The Senate's budget ensures that we live within our means and set aside ample reserves. This budget meets the needs of our growing state in a manner that reflects the priorities of Floridians. The link between education and our economy is clear. The best thing we can do to invest in Florida's future is to make certain all Florida children have access to a great education from voluntary pre-kindergarten, all the way through our excellent institutions of higher education.
The Senate budget also addresses areas where the state struggles with employee retention. By increasing the starting salary for corrections officers, includes a 5 percent pay increase for all sworn law enforcement officers, and includes targeted pay increases throughout the judicial branch for judges, assistant public defenders, and our statewide Guardian Ad Litem offices. The Senate budget makes it clear to our workforce that their hard work and contributions to our state are appreciated.
Legislation to reduce youth criminalization
This week, the Senate Committee on Appropriations passed Senate Bill 196, Juvenile Civil Citation and Similar Diversion Programs. The legislation reforms requirements regarding the issuance of civil citations, rather than criminal charges, for certain non-violent youthful offenses.
When young people commit serious violent crimes, there needs to be an appropriate legal penalty. However, there are many other situations where young people are displaying a lack of judgement and maturity, rather than serious criminal behavior. The legislation ensures that we utilize other avenues that correct inappropriate behavior without stigmatizing our youth with a criminal record that could impact their future education and career opportunities. Senate Bill 196 requires a law enforcement officer to issue a civil citation, or require the juvenile's participation in a diversion program when the juvenile admits to committing certain first-time misdemeanor offenses including: possession of alcoholic beverages, criminal mischief, trespass, and disorderly conduct, among others.
Under the legislation, a law enforcement officer must provide written documentation articulating why an arrest is warranted when he or she has the discretion to issue a civil citation, but instead chooses to arrest the juvenile. Additionally, the bill specifies that the option of the issuance of a civil citation or referral to a similar diversion program, does not apply to juveniles in certain circumstances. Specifically, it would not apply to a juvenile who is alleged to have committed, has plead guilty to, or has been convicted of a felony, or a misdemeanor offense, arising out of an episode in which the juvenile is also alleged to have committed another felony.
Over time, the bill may have a positive fiscal impact to state and local governments because an increase in civil citations and similar diversion programs may result in young people being diverted from the Department of Juvenile Justice's more costly residential program. It also may reduce the cost to state and local governments for housing youth in juvenile detention.
Senate committee meetings and floor sittings are streamed live on the Senate's website. The daily video broadcast schedule is at: www.flsenate.gov/Media/VideoSchedule.
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto represents District 27 in the Florida Senate. Contact her at 239-338-2570. Her district office is at 2310 First St., Unit 305, Fort Myers.