State Reps. Chris Sprowls and James “Jamie” Grant met with the public earlier this week for a wrap up on Florida’s 2015 Legislative Session.
Topics ranged from education, redistricting and Medicaid expansion, to conservation, renewable energy and open source data.
Last year, the same meeting, sponsored by the Council of North County Neighborhoods (CNCN), led to this year’s passage of House Bill 643 (sponsored by Sprowls and Grant )which deals with termination of a condominium association.
“You have corporations that come in [and] buy up 80 percent of the property in a condominium,” said Sprowls, a 31 year-old Republican representing Florida’s 65th District, which includes Clearwater, Dunedin and Tarpon Springs.. “[Then] you get a letter saying we’re terminating you based on these rules in our condominium documents, and now we get to take your property. You’re going to get pennies on the dollar.”
The scenario, a version of “corporate eminent domain” as Sprowls characterized it, was a reality for over 100 condo owners living within Sprowls’ and Grant’s districts, according to the two Representatives.
Grant, a 32 year-old Republican representing Florida’s 64th District which includes northern Hillsborough and northern Pinellas counties, found out about the situation during last year’s CNCN legislative session discussion. He went to Sprowls with it and Gov. Rick Scott signed HB 643 a year later.
“That was a piece of legislation that came out of this room,” said Sprowls to roughly 30 people at the East Lake United Methodist Church in Palm Harbor.
The bill provides and revises rules and requirements for termination of condominium property, giving condo owners, in essence, a more realistic shot at winning a fight against a large condo-association-purchasing corporation trying to kick them out.
“If you ask me what my highlight of the session was,” Sprowls concluded, ” [I’d say] it was representative Grant and I […] passing out that condominium bill and watching Senator [Jack] Latvala pass it unanimously in the Senate and then getting the governor to sign it.”
Grant also acknowledged House Bill 643’s passage as a highlight, but credited the squashing of Medicaid expansion as the most significant accomplishment to occur at the 2015 legislative session, a declaration Sprowls was in agreement with.
Both men said they believe Medicaid is an unsustainable long-term model for healthcare and pointed to the program’s yearly costs and how they’re rising faster than Florida’s yearly budget.
The issue of amending Florida’s state constitution was another point of agreement for Sprowls and Grant, each feeling it’s too easy and leads to far too many amendments.
“Print out a copy of the United States constitution,” Sprowls said. “And, if you have enough paper, print out a copy of the Florida Constitution […] see how it just dwarfs [the U.S. Constitution].”
Grant also compared the U.S. Constitution, amended only 27 times since its birth, to the Florida Constitution, which Grant said was amended close to 3,000 times.
Sprowls voiced further worry over the issue, stating that one of his chief concerns on constitutional amendments was the level of influence that special interests have in creating them.
“Who has money to fund television ads?” said Sprowls, referring to deep-pocketed special interest groups. “Who has the money to fund petition campaigns on the ballot?”
When the topic of conservation came up, Sprowls and Grant acknowledged the importance of keeping Florida’s land and water healthy.
Grant also admitted the issue of whether or not to buy the sugar farm south of lake Okeechobee — in hopes of helping to support a healthier Everglades — was a “frustrating one” for him. Ultimately, the proposed purchase was rejected — a move criticized by many state citizens.
“I think a lot of the criticism this year is [due to] the fact that a lot of people went all in on trying to see that land acquired under the Amendment I protection, the Amendment I name,” said Grant. “Since that wasn’t done, it became very easy to criticize everything else in the budget. But I think it would be almost impossible to ever say that the legislature did didn’t comply with Amendment I, because of all the different ways in the budget that they’re spending on the maintenance and preservation of land here.”
Fracking was briefly touched upon, with Sprowls and Grant each pointing to the House’s passing of a bill that would have regulated and studied fracking in Florida as conservation related work.
Democrats — most of whom want the practice banned all together — were not in favor of the bill, believing that hydraulic fracturing would put the state’s water supply in peril. Most Republicans, knowing that fracking isn’t now regulated, believed the bill would make sure it’s done safely. However, the bill died on the calendar, on May 1.
The conservation part of the discussion naturally transitioned into a conversation about renewable energy. Sprowls and Grant, rather than relating the topic too much to the 2015 legislative session, each looked towards the future.
Sprowls said he wants Florida to “take an active role in solar,” and went on to praise neighborhoods near Orlando that he says are already completely solar-powered. He took the thought further by describing a future where people can harness enough solar energy to power their homes and cars at no cost, while also selling some back to the grid, or to a neighbor.
“It’s time to open up the market, to go to more solar energy, to allow residents to be more diverse in how they plan for their own personal energy [supply],” said Sprowls.
Grant focused his part of the renewable energy discussion on battery power.
“If you and I have a battery in our house that is capable of powering the way we live, [of powering] our vehicle, and we’re no longer dependent on any source of petroleum, or natural gas,” said Grant, referring to some of the battery developments Elon Musk and Tesla Motors have been coming up with in recent years, “it certainly becomes a lot easier for us to reconcile the difference between how we meet our economic needs while preserving the Florida we know.”
Education was brought up early on during the open mic section of the evening. Sprowls touched on an open enrollment bill of his that died before coming to a Senate vote during this legislative session. It would have given kids (K-12) — statewide — easier access to the school of their choosing.
Sprowls also touched on some future education-related logistics he believes in:
“We need fewer tests. We need better tests. We want to be able to measure, to know that we’re being successful,” said Sprowls. “But we don’t want to do it to the extent of taking away from valuable educational opportunities for the kids.”
The most discussed topic other than Medicaid was probably the redrawing of congressional districts, which, earlier this month, Florida’s Supreme Court gave lawmakers 100 days to accomplish. Florida’s current congressional districts conflict with a voter-approved constitutional amendment which says political lines can’t be drawn to favor political parties or incumbents.
Grant, of the two local House Representatives, had more to say on the issue.
“We watched a constitutional amendment pass that, in essence, said you need to have purple squares all over the state,” Grant said, referring to districts with both red Republicans and blue Democrats. “Well, I’m sorry but there’s not a lot of blue in Pensacola. There’s not a lot of red in Boca Raton. There are areas of this state where you can’t force Democrats or Republicans to move to get purple.
“Should gerrymandering stop?” added Grant. “Should districts be purple squares? Sure. And if we can get unicorns to run for office, maybe that would happen.
“I dare anyone to draw purple squares that can’t fairly be attacked by the other side,” Grant concluded.
“With the backdrop of the voting rights act,” added Sprowls, “it becomes a very complicated process.”
The redistricting talks soon led to the topic of transparency in government, which came up towards the end of the evening. The discussion focused on the future of open source data in Florida.
“We want to open source every single data point that is required to be covered by the sunshine law, and do it in a format where it’s actually usable,” said Grant, who then added that he’s been working with Senator Jeff Brandes, the St. Pete Republican, on making it happen.
Sprowls related the concept to healthcare, saying that it could give the public further information on physicians and healthcare providers before choosing one.
Grant praised states like Hawaii, Virginia, Utah and Michigan, which all have systems in place that resemble what he’s trying to get accomplished in Florida.
“[I want to] put in place a process that would open source your government,” concluded Grant, “to make the assessment of tax spending a lot easier and defined, and let data win more than emotion.”
Sprowls and Grant, along with the rest of Florida’s Legislature, will meet for a nearly two-week-long special session in August to redraw the state’s congressional districts.