Tough economic times put environmental issues on the Florida Legislature's back burner in recent years, but this session should be different, according to Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater), who sat on the panel at Monday night's Town Hall Session 2013 hosted by WLRN and the Miami Herald.
Hot-button issues like education reform, property insurance and Medicaid expansion dominated the agenda for Monday's Town Hall. But the panel did field one question about current environmental oversights -- or the lack thereof -- in Florida.
During an open question-and-answer period, Matthew Schwartz of Fort Lauderdale raised the issue of developmental regulation in the state and specifically the 2011 dismantling of the Department of Community Affairs, which previously handled growth management in Florida.
Citing a 2011 survey conducted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which found that 49 percent of residents and 47 percent of tourists participate in wildlife viewing in Florida, Schwartz asked, "What role do you believe the Florida legislature should play in safeguarding our environment and wildlife in the future?"
"I agree totally that we need to maintain the environment that brings in a lot of tourists and new residents to Florida," said Latvala, the Senate's majority leader. He was joined on the panel by Sen. Chris Smith (D-Fort Lauderdale), Mary Ellen Klas (Capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald), and moderator Phil Latzman (senior anchor/reporter for WLRN-Miami Herald News).
Florida's previous growth management system under the Department of Community Affairs "was broken" at either the county or state level Latvala said, but he didn't agree with ditching the system altogether. Latvala said that while he had "always been a voice" for the protection of the Everglades and other state natural resources, the recent economic crisis took precedence.
"Some of these types of programs didn't rise to the importance of educating our kids or keeping our populations healthy," Latvala said of environmental projects. "They went by the wayside, but I think they'll be back."
Latvala pointed to Gov. Rick Scott's proposed $74.2 billion budget, which includes $60 million for Everglades restoration and $75 million for kick-starting the Florida Forever Coalition land-buying projects. (Read more about the proposed budget and what it would mean for South Florida environmental projects here.)
The crowd of roughly 600 people at Monday's event responded enthusiastically to mention of the proposed funds for environmental welfare. With the budget set to go before the Florida Legislature for approval, voters will need to let elected officials know whether those projects are of value. It's a point echoed by Klas, who urged the crowd to stay vigilant about issues that matter to them and to demand government transparency; "Keep the pressure on."
The Florida Legislature's 2013 regular session will convene at 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 5. Couldn't attend Monday's Town Hall session? Tune in to WLRN at 11 a.m. Thursday for a broadcast. Or watch it in its entirety here. On Twitter, search the hashtag #FL2013 to see what others had to say about the event.