Tallahassee – In this town where cities need lobbyists to influence the state, is there room for “we the people”? Plenty, it turns out. Just ask Joe Mazurkiewicz.
In the late ‘90s the former boy wonder Mayor of Cape Coral had an idea. Why not load up a bus, drive to Tallahassee, and talk to state leaders about local issues. Think of your senior year trip, with an agenda.
The popular “Cape Coral Days” morphed into “Lee County Days” nine years ago. In February, Mazurkie - wicz and his wife Heather with two dozen civic, business and political leaders from Bonita Springs, Sanibel and Cape Coral set off on the six-hour drive to Tallahassee. Fittingly, the trip to the capitol of state politics was punctuated by cigar breaks.
Over two days the group met with over 20 legislative and executive branch leaders.
“It’s important to establish relationships that are good for the City, and emails just don’t do it,” said Bonita Springs Councilwoman Janet Martin, who along with City Manager Carl Schwing joined the group. The Bonita Chamber’s contingent was lead by CEO Christine Ross, together with Chair Jim Dati and Vice-Chair Scott Duval. Attorney General Pam Bondi was one of three Governor’s cabinet members scheduled to address the group. She spoke passionately about her effort to eliminate pill mills in the state.
“We were known as the oxy express,” said Bondi. She told of meeting a Kentucky mother who lost her daughter to pills bought in Florida. In Florida, seven lives a day were lost to overdoses in 2010. At All Children’s Hospital in Tampa, 30 percent of the infants in intensive care are addicted to oxycontin, she said.
“We have got to put these guys out of business,” said Bondi.
Recent steps to track pill prescriptions have helped. One key, she said, is to stay on top of ever changing drug formulations. Bondi is considered a rising star in statewide Republican politics. Before running for Attorney General, she had no political aspirations. Once her eight years as attorney general are up, she will return to private life. At least she said that is her plan.
Agriculture secretary Adam Putnam served five terms in the U.S. Congress before stepping down to win statewide office, all before the age of 40. The youthful looking Putnam has “I could be Governor” written all over him.
“Our job is putting an economic face on agriculture,” said Putnam. Agriculture is a $100 billion industry in the state, he said. Florida University research has helped develop better agricultural products, including improving strains of blueberries and peaches that are replacing citrus in many parts of the state.
“In the long term, water is the biggest issue facing Florida,” said Putnam. “We don’t need water wars. We need to be smart.” Lake Okeechobee is “the beating heart of the system,” but the Hoover dike around it is structurally deficient. As a result, the lake must be kept at low levels and awaits rehabilitation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Local concerns were discussed throughout the meetings. Councilwoman Martin addressed the need for silt removal from Oak Creek, estimated to cost $250,000. Last year, that funding was on track but fell under the state’s budget axe. Dredging is needed for flood control as well as area aesthetics. Martin pressed Transportation Secretary Prasad on buffering Bonita neighborhoods from I-75 noise.
Its important to safeguard local home rule, said City Manager Carl Schwing, citing as an example repeated legislative attempts to preempt local fertilizer rules. Ross, a Lee County Days participant in her three years with the Bonita Chamber, pressed legislators, the Insurance Department and Lieutenant Governor Carroll to allow chambers of commerce to sponsor group health insurance plans. The vast majority of Bonita Chamber’s members have fewer than ten employees, said Ross, and they could benefit from the economies of purchasing insurance as part of a larger group.
The meetings were arranged through the offices of Representatives Gary Aubuchon and Trude Williams, and Senator Mike Bennett. Aubuchon introduced Speaker of the House Dean Cannon who greeted the group in the historic House Chambers. The group heard from Lieutenant Governor Carroll that “60 percent of the state budget is driven by healthcare and education.”
As to the economy, its health is “dependent on a healthy environment,” said EPA Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard. And, “Infrastructure is the bedrock of a growing economy,” said DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad. The top scam in Florida?
“Time share resale fraud, with 10,000 complaints,” said AG Bondi.
Heather Mazurkiewicz fostered an informal tone that facilitated communication in the meetings. Once, breaking the ice with a self-effacing “I have a dumb question,” she was met with the obligatory
“There is no stupid question.” “Hold on,” she protested. “You haven’t heard my question yet!”
Speakers were peppered with questions on I-75 entrances, sawtooth fish, Lee Memorial funding, FGCU funding, unlicensed contractors, sale of raw milk and more.
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