Officials: County fares well in Tallahassee
Published: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 12:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 12:35 p.m.
Alachua County government didn't get everything it hoped for from the Florida Legislature this year, but local legislators and county commissioners say it was a successful session overall.
State Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, pointed to the support the University of Florida received this year from the Legislature for its goal of becoming a top 10 university and Alachua County's high level of appropriations funding as two big wins for the area. Bradley, a freshman state senator, represents the county as part of his district.
Bradley also emphasized the importance of the raises the state was able to give state employees after several years without them. The government carved out room for a raise for teachers, too.
"I think this was a very successful legislative session for the Alachua County government," Bradley said. "But more importantly, it was a very successful legislative session for the people of Alachua County."
The county received around $688 million in state money for local projects, clocking in with the fourth-largest haul among Florida's 67 counties.
Miami-Dade, Broward and Hillsborough counties were the only ones that received more funding, according to the News Service of Florida.
Much of that money was designated for the University of Florida as it aims for a spot among the top 10 public universities nationally.
"For many of us who care deeply about UF, that's been a goal of ours for a long time and we were finally able to get that goal accomplished this year," Bradley said. "It's going to result in more dollars coming to UF to make sure UF has the resources in place to become a top 10 public university."
Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, said all the state's universities would benefit from UF receiving that sought-after designation. Perry believes UF is an economic engine that is an important part not just of Alachua County but of the state as a whole.
"There's no other university in the state of Florida that could possibly have a chance of becoming a top 10 university," Perry said.
Perry tipped his hat to Bradley for his efforts in the push for state support of UF, particularly among Bradley's fellow senators.
County Commissioner Susan Baird said she was glad so many great local projects warranted such a high level of funding this year. "But I wouldn't count on that forever," she said.
Baird cautioned that the appropriations money awarded to UF and other local organizations should be viewed as a nice windfall rather than as something to rely on in the future.
The area as a whole did well with appropriations funding, but the county government focused more on bills this session, Alachua County Communications Coordinator Mark Sexton said.
Biodiesel legislation introduced by Bradley and Perry that ranked as one of the County Commission's top legislative priorities succeeded.
The legislation exempts counties, school districts and municipalities from a previous requirement that mandated the maintenance of a fuel wholesaler license in order for these organizations to produce biodiesel fuel for their internal use.
Perry said the biodiesel bill was in line with his belief that regulations that do harm to organizations or individuals with no benefit to the general public should be reconsidered. He called this particular regulation a "ridiculous burden" for Florida's counties.
Medicaid billing was also a top concern for the County Commission. Sexton said legislation was approved that improved the state's method of billing counties for health care costs, although it wasn't an ideal solution.
The legislation that passed, after much debate, simplifies the process, allows the county to pay using a revenue source of its choice, and represents a step toward a system that is fairer to the county and its residents, Sexton said.
Counties will eventually cover Medicaid costs based on the percentage of Medicaid enrollees who reside in their jurisdiction, instead of the current method in which the state bills them based on the services their residents have received.
Bradley said he was happy the legislation was modified to lay out a long-term transition period over which counties can adjust to the billing changes. It ended up being, he said, "a bill that nobody loved but everybody could live with."
Bradley said he doesn't think this is the end of the Medicaid discussion, though, since it is an issue people are struggling with not only in Florida but nationwide.
For County Commissioner Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson, the session was an overall success, but disappointing from an environmental perspective, with legislators showing what he considered a general lack of interest in significantly funding springs protection and land conservation efforts, which are important to many North Florida residents.
One of the bright spots this session was the county's legislative delegation, consisting of Bradley, Perry and state Rep. Clovis Watson Jr., D-Alachua, who collectively outperformed Hutchinson's expectations.
"Expectations for the Legislature are so low that when they don't manage to reach those depths, we're very happy, and that's kind of the take I have on it," Hutchinson said.
At a legislative review at Santa Fe College on Wednesday, Perry and Watson discussed session outcomes at SF's Fine Arts Hall.
Watson summarized the just-completed legislative session in his comments at the forum: "I'm proud to be part of the process. My colleagues fight very hard for what they believe in."
Also at the forum, Perry stated his philosophy in how he approaches legislation and whether he should vote yes or no: "I don't look at what government can do. My goal is what government should do."
Dave Price, interim director of student life at SF, said of the forum: "It was good to see a mix of community members and students engaged in questioning the representatives."
Price said the representatives did a good job of providing direct and informative answers to the posed questions, including health care, Medicaid and the texting ban.
"And occasionally (they) had to respectfully disagree with each other," Price said.
"I thought there were many thought-provoking questions on a variety of topics." Price said.
Morgan Watkins is a Gainesville Sun staff writer. Sun correspondent Caitlin Raddatz contributed to this report.