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2015 Awake the State rallies take on a quieter tone

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Progressive activists across the state are calling on the Florida Legislature to take up five key issues voted on by supporters of the group Progress Florida.

During a rally at Spa Beach near the downtown St. Pete Pier, about 20 members of the community announced their agenda that includes raising the minimum wage, expanding health care and Medicaid, ensuring access to clean water and energy and reforming campaign finance laws.

“We want to put the progressive agenda in the forefront,” said community activist Kofi Hunt. “These issues are not taken seriously by the Republican-controlled House.”

Previously, a coalition of activists assembled by Progress Florida known as Awake the State have taken to cities across Florida to protest conservative bills they see as harmful to middle- and lower-income earners. For the past four years they’ve protested things like public education spending, assaults on voting rights and limited access to health care.

The group is taking a different approach this year. Instead of picketing agendas with which they disagree, the group is laying out their own agenda and asking for support.

But the rally in St. Pete was only about 20 activists strong with only two members of the media covering. It begs the question, how is a group that is gathering limited attention going to gain traction on issues the conservative legislature has little interest in addressing?

“[We do that by] taking these 20 people, knocking on hundreds of doors [and doing] deep organizing, not protesting,” Hunt said.

And their group is not alone. In Tallahassee, activists gathered at the Capitol at the opening of the 2015 legislative session. Other groups assembled in South Florida and in Orlando. Groups held events on Florida’s East Coast and in the Panhandle.

One of the biggest issues facing progressives is in getting the Legislature to agree on a measure that would expand the state’s Medicaid program to nearly one million uninsured, low-income Floridians. The state has thus far rejected $51 billion in federal funding to pay for the expansion.

“Now we’re seeing it more of it’s the Senate versus the House,” said Florida Consumer Action Network Community Organizer Olivia Bavis. “You have a lot of Republicans who are on board with this now.”

It’s an issue that once saw a staunch political divide. Republicans rejected the notion of accepting federal dollars to expand healthcare while Democrats saw it as a no-brainer. Now it’s not so cut and dry. Senate President Andy Gardiner seems on board with a plan to carry out a program that would include a free-market approach to expansion. The traditionally conservative Chamber of Commerce also supports it. But House Speaker Steve Crisafulli is still on the fence and leaning toward an anti-Obamacare “no.”

“These are students. These are health-care workers,” Bavis said of the people falling into what’s known as the “coverage gap.” Those people who earn less than the federal poverty level don’t qualify for a subsidy for private health coverage and many also don’t qualify for Medicaid because the state has chosen not to expand its program.

Another key issue Progress Florida is tackling this year is the minimum wage. There’s a bill that has been introduced to raise the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour, but even that isn’t enough for some activists.

“The best way for businesses to retain their reliable consistent staff is to pay more than 10 an hour especially in the retail and food industries where individuals like myself are forced to work because of their choices in the past,” Pinellas County resident Niki Johnson said.

Johnson is part of a nationwide movement called “Fight for Fifteen” that advocates for a $15 minimum wage.

“In this economy the higher minimum wages  enacted by U.S cities have shown no evidence of slowed job growth or business relocation. So, it’s a benefit,” she said.

On the clean energy front activists are trying to send a message to reluctant lawmakers that the public is interested in clean energy policies. That would include tapping alternative energy sources like wind and solar. However, the most prominent face of the energy debate lies with Duke Energy and a Florida law that allows the energy giant to collect advanced nuclear cost recovery fees from customers.

Up until the company issued a freeze on billing customers for advanced fees, customers were forking over fees to cover $3.2 billion the Florida Public Service Commission ruled they were on the hook for over two nuclear projects that were never completed and then later canceled altogether.

The fight began with Democrats calling for a repeal of the law allowing Duke to collect those fees. During the 2014 election cycle, however, many Republicans started joining the chorus.

“Dwight Dudley, who was on Duke Energy’s hit list I’m sure, they must have had some campaign contributions to his opponent, he won, because of, I think, the populist message that it makes sense to invest in clean energy and repeal policies that don’t make sense,” said Sierra Club spokesperson Tim Heberlein.

The Sierra Club and other activists want to see the law repealed and the freeze on advanced fees made permanent.

Jennifer Rubiello, with the group Environment Florida, is pushing for what she sees as common- sense water policy.

“We’ve seen an assault on our water resources across the state for years, if not decades,” Rubiello said. “We need to protect water from its source.”

She’s supporting the Water Protection Act, which would implement a minimum flow level for springs, require local governments to enact summer-time fertilizer bans and ban fracking.

The fracking component is perhaps the largest win for environmentalist if the measure becomes law.

“Once [water is] contaminated there’s no going back,” Rubiello said.

Her group is also asking lawmakers to make sure money collected through the passage of Amendment 1 goes for land preservation and preventative water quality projects, rather than solely for improvements to water treatment facilities and other reactive infrastructure uses.

Amendment 1 passed with three-quarters of voters in favor of it. The measure dedicates about $1 billion a year from an existing real estate tax for conservation.

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Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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