This year’s Marion Legislative Delegation meeting had several presenters articulate positions on progressive issues, something Marion’s legislators are not used to hearing, much less considering. This should be recognized as the seeds of something that will grow.
Each year, the delegation of state representatives and state senators gathers in the respective counties to hear concerns from constituents prior to the start of the annual two month legislative session. In Marion County, there are three state senators and four representatives, all Republicans except for Rep. Clovis Watson.
The progressive coalition, Awake Marion, had several of its participants make presentations. [Disclaimer: the writer is Awake Marion’s coordinator.] Combined with several human services agencies, legislators heard about a number of areas of concern where state funding for key community-building programs and services was the primary focus, contrasting against the skewed priorities of legislators who can always find money for a corporate tax credit, can always ignore tax loopholes, and can always award lucrative, unaccountable contracts to privateers.
Despite the absence of anyone (anyone!) from the public schools, Nancy Noonan, president of Marions United for Public Education, an advocacy group that shares in the Awake Marion coalition, was present so that someone spoke up for public education. Noonan highlighted the unfunded mandates like teacher merit pay and the requirement for digital textbook technology that the legislature should correct with an allocation of proper funds. She said that money should stop being thrown at unproven, largely ineffective, and often unaccountable “reform” schemes that divert funding from public schools. Finally, she reminded legislators that there was an ongoing need to add revenue, readily available by ending corporate tax and sales tax exemptions, credits, and loopholes.
As if deaf to what Noonan had just said, State Senator Alan Hays (R-Umatilla) then called attention to the pension case awaiting a court decision which could overturn the 3% pension contribution that the Tea Party/GOP legislature had enacted for state employees. If decided against the state, it could result in a $1.3 billion bill for the state. Hays said that would change everything. Had he so quickly forgotten Noonan’s call to raise revenue by addressing the hodgepodge of wasteful tax breaks that litter the state tax code? Or did Hays never hear her words in the first place?
Whitfield Jenkins, representing Marion County NAACP, another Awake Marion coalition participant, urged legislators to pay attention to “underserved communities” which most often meant minority communities. While he cited progress locally in multi-level government partnerships to spur economic investment and development, he urged sustained vigilance and commitment to forging a new direction in such communities.
Pat Hawk of Water Well Justice, an Awake Marion coalition participant, reviewed the history of wells going dry in the area, including her own not long ago. She called attention to the disturbingly low water levels in Lake Weir and Orange Lake as well as the historically low flow rate at Silver Springs, acknowledging that there are mostly unknowns when it comes to what is happening in the Floridan Aquifer. Noting how drilling a new well was a major cost for families and seniors, Hawk sought special state funding for citizens forced to drill new wells since there is no apparent intention by the legislature to protect citizens and their water by limiting new water withdrawal permits.
Guy Marwick, noted longtime Marion environmentalist, admonished the state for its Band Aid approaches to water and conservation policy. He expressed his deep concern about water quality, citing nitrate contamination, permits for large withdrawals, and the spreading threat of saltwater intrusion and contamination of the aquifer and wells due to excessive withdrawals. Comprehensive solutions are needed, and are long overdue, he emphasized.
Michael Davis, an activist leader in Awake Marion’s Juvenile Justice Project, called for repeal of SB 2112, a law which allowed county governments to assume control of local juvenile justice detention services. Previously, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) handled all juvenile justice detention since it was uniquely capable of dealing with youth with issues. Duh. But for financial reasons, counties were given the option of taking them over from DJJ and saving large sums. It was such a really bad idea that only 3 of 67 Florida counties have begun handling juvenile detention; Marion, Seminole, and Polk. As Davis stated, Marion’s is considered a model operation, Seminole’s program is passable, and Polk’s is a disaster that has resulted in dangerous and abusive situations for youth among untrained correction officers, plunging Polk into a lawsuit for its gross mismanagement. The best idea, said Davis, would be to repeal SB 2112 and let DJJ return to doing what it knows how to do and is supposed to do.
Delphine Herbert who, active with other community organizations, is leader of Marions for Peace, another Awake Marion participant, insisted that the state needed leadership to address the culture of violence, particularly in the wake of the Newtown, CT school shootings. Citing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she suggested that more guns did not equal more protection: “Where do we go from here? Chaos or community? … Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. “
It was over four hours of public comment, so there is another post or two to come. But the sound of progressive voices increased noticeably this year, signs of new community advocacy in Marion. Of course, getting the legislative delegation’s ears to listen is also a work in progress.