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Guest opinion: 2014 Florida legislative session comes to a close

May 14, 2014
Lehigh Acres Citizen

After meeting for 60 days, the 2014 legislative session came to its conclusion recently in Tallahassee. By passing a balanced budget, we successfully accomplished our most important job. Being a good steward of your tax dollars is always the first priority. Below you will see some highlights from the 2014-15 General Appropriations Act including important appropriations in Southwest Florida.

Budget highlights

Florida passed a balanced budget that includes a reduction in tag and title fees so that drivers in our state will be able to keep $395 million annually in their pockets, with $500 million in total tax relief.

This budget continues to pay down Florida's debt and put $3 billion in reserves so that Florida continues on a sustainable track.

Continuing the focus on K-12 education, there is a 2.6 percent increase in per student funding to invest in Florida's future.

Successfully funds higher education priorities, including the top capital outlay projects at both Southwest Florida institutions of higher education. $7 million for FGCU's Innovation Hub, and $5 million for Edison State College's Leonhardt Hall.

The budget includes more than $231 million in water projects statewide to help treat and store water. This includes $18 million to support the construction of the Caloosahatchee C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir project that will store water and help keep harmful releases from Lake Okeechobee away from the Caloosahatchee Estuary.

* $500,000 for each estuary in the Northern Estuaries Resource Recovery Pilot Program that seeks to re-establish oyster populations and seagrass beds in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries.

* $790,135 for a Reclaimed Water Transmission Main Crossing between the cities of Cape Coral and Fort Myers to help clean up the water in the Caloosahatchee River.

* Allocates funding to improve our child welfare system including significant increases in funding for child protective investigators and Florida's community-based care agencies.

* Triples the Person Needs Allowance for nursing home patients, from $35 to $105 per month.

* Provides $500,000 to renovate McCollum Hall in the City of Fort Myers.

* Includes $900,000 for the Punta Gorda Reverse Osmosis Plant to help improve the city's drinking water long-term.

Legislative highlights

* SB 224 - Protecting Children from Electronic Cigarettes: passed (sponsor)

Given nicotine's highly addictive qualities these products have the potential to create long-term nicotine users. Allowing a child to become dependent upon nicotine is not something Florida is interested in supporting. This bill includes electronic cigarettes under the current statute that prohibits minors from purchasing cigarettes and other tobacco products.

* SB 1480 - Florida Microfinance Act: passed in HB 7023 (sponsor)

Florida's small businesses play a vital role in our state's economy, and yet many times these companies struggle to obtain the operating capital they need to grow. The Florida Microfinance Act will foster success and profitable operations for small businesses by providing avenues to access capital as well as providing information, technical assistance and business management training via the Florida Small Business Development Network.

* SB 494 - Time Limitations on Sexual Offenses: passed in SB 526 (sponsor)

The Florida Legislature has long strived to protect the children in our state, evidenced when we removed the statute of limitations on sexual battery offenses so that predators didn't receive the benefit of a running clock to avoid prosecution. However this bill fixed a loophole by removing the remaining three year statute of limitation on the prosecution of lewd and lascivious battery and molestation cases committed on a child less than 16 years of age. SB 494 insures that children have the ability to seek justice no matter when they come forward.

* SB 542 - Flood Insurance: passed (co-sponsor)

A private sector solution to reduce high flood insurance premiums has been created as a Florida alternative to the National Flood Insurance Program. In order to keep the cost of flood insurance low, the bill provides opportunities for policyholders and insurers to select various deductible amounts, choose between insuring their property for the outstanding balance of their mortgage, the property's replacement cost, or the actual cash value of the property.

The legislation further empowers Florida consumers by allowing them to opt to include or exclude coverage for contents, additional living expenses, or secondary structures, but also provides consumer protections by maintaining the Office of Insurance Regulation's current role with regard to rate approval.

* SB 860 - Military and Veterans Affairs, GI Bill: passed (co-sponsor)

America's heroes make extraordinary sacrifices to protect our communities, State and Nation, and I am truly honored to have been a part of a legislature that has chosen to celebrate this service and valor by expanding opportunities available for those who defend our country as well as their families.

The GI Bill creates the Congressman C.W. Bill Young Veteran Tuition Waiver Program which directs state universities, state colleges, career centers, and technical centers to waive out-of-state tuition fees for honorably discharged veterans. Military installation commanders are encouraged to work with the Commissioner of Education to increase military family student achievement, which may include the establishment of charter schools on military bases.

* SB 918 - Termination of Pregnancies:?passed (co-sponsor)

This bill expands legal protections for unborn Floridians by prohibiting the elective abortion of an unborn child when a physician, using his or her medical judgment, determines a child is viable outside of the womb.

Senate Bill 918 maintains Florida's current prohibition on third trimester (24 weeks) elective abortions, but requires that a physician, prior to 24 weeks, using his/her medical judgment, determine the viability of the child prior to an abortion procedure.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto represents District 30 in the Florida Senate.



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