Florida Senate Majority Leader Kathleen Passidomo spoke to the Democratic Women’s Club of Marco on August 13. The audience of club members and guests came to hear Passidomo speak on the recent legislative session in Tallahassee. Afterwards, the floor was opened for a period of questions and answers.
Passidomo began by giving a brief introduction to the Florida Legislature’s functions. The Florida Legislature is made up of 160 representatives, 40 senators and 120 House members. Florida legislators are considered part-time employees and earn $28,000 per year. Passidomo’s district contains about 500,000 people.
The senator said that the Florida Legislature has two constitutional jobs. One is to pass a balanced budget each year. It is usually a bi-partisan budget and is often passed by a large majority. The other job is to consider and pass legislation. Passidomo maintained that approximately 2,500 bills are filed each year, but only 180 to 190 pass and become law. While it is difficult to pass a bill into law, she claims that most bills get passed in a bi-partisan manner, sometimes unanimously, she said.
The senator then gave a few examples of funding passed this year. On the environment, $600 million was allocated for environmental programs such as the Caloosahatchee Reservoir slated to be complete by 2023, and an increase in funding to FGCU for research on toxic algae and red tide.
On matters relating to education, K–12 schools will see an increase of $242 per student in grades K-12. It also gives more power to individual county school districts on how to use these funds. Universities will see increased funding. And finally, medical schools will be given more money to be used to increase the number of residency programs.
The audience had the opportunity to ask questions of the senator by filing out notecards prior to the start of the meeting. Voting integrity, restitution of voting rights for ex-felons (Amendment 4), regulating military style weapons and ammunition, mental health and guns, marijuana, and lack of affordable housing were the questions asked.
The first question dealt with preparing for the next election to prevent hacking, possible interference from foreign entities, machine malfunctions and whether there is a paper trail to ensure voting integrity. Passidomo called on Collier County Supervisor of Elections Jennifer Edwards, present in the audience, to help answer the question. Collier County’s voting system is not tied to the internet and thus cannot be hacked, Edwards said. However, Passidomo was unsure which counties could be affected by hacking. She said Florida is a “bottom up” system whereby each county is responsible for its voting process, meaning each county is responsible for how they conduct and ensure the integrity of the voting process. The State of Florida has no oversight. The state does require each county to keep a 22-month long record of ballots cast leaving a “paper trail”. Collier County abides by that rule. Broward County, among other counties, did not maintain those paper ballots. Collier County uses a stand-alone software program called “Clear Ballot” to tabulate its ballots. It is not connected to the internet and thus cannot be hacked. The state law requires that individual counties save images of the votes cast. Unfortunately, 64 percent of counties are not compliant and thus, unlike Collier County, are vulnerable. Florida also does a post-election audit of random counties.
The next question brought up was regarding Amendment 4. The amendment allowed for the voting rights to be restored to nonviolent ex-felons upon the completion of their incarceration and the fulfillment of any parole. This was the intent of Amendment 4 and was supported by 64 percent of Florida voters in the 2018 election. Legislation recently passed stipulated that all fines and fees involved in the conviction must also be paid before having voting rights restored. There are 1.4 million ex-felons who have completed their sentences and paroles but remain disenfranchised because they cannot afford these costs, making the new law a poll tax. Senator Passidomo answered by maintaining that the framers of the Amendment 4 went before the Florida Supreme Court and agreed to the wording used on the ballot. She went on to say some victims are due restitution. Still even without having to repay restitution, some felons may end up owing thousands of dollars due to their incarceration. She maintained that there are avenues available for former felons to get their vote reinstated. For example, they can go to a judge to get their fees changed to civil fines thereby removing that obligation before being able to vote or they can appear before a clemency board. The latter option, she agreed, needs to meet more often. However, Senator Passidomo said that she is more interested in putting her energy into training inmates so that they have marketable skills when they are released rather than restoring their voting rights. She claims that ex-felons are more interested in jobs than in voting. However, voting is a right of any eligible American citizen and to deny that right because of poverty is unfair.
The topic turned to regulation of military style weapons. Ninety percent of Americans support background checks. When asked if she supported universal background checks and banning military styled weaponry, Passidomo responded that after the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland last year, the Florida Legislature passed several pieces of legislation that outlawed bump stocks and prohibited those under 18 from purchasing guns. A “Red Flag” law which passed by the “skin of its teeth” allows for the removal of guns from suspects deemed to be dangerous by law enforcement. The “1,000-pound gorilla” is the ban of assault rifles, which she said would not pass because of the voters in the Panhandle. Senator Passidomo said, “Such a bill will not pass. We need to pass what we can do together, or we will get nothing passed. The NRA does not support the Florida Legislature. The Supreme Court doe not define assault weapons.” When another audience member asked if the Senator was brave enough to vote for an assault weapons ban, she replied, “if you lawfully own a gun, who am I to take it away? We are talking about taking baby steps towards this issue. There is a Senate Committee to specifically look at the gun issue. This is more than the Florida Legislature has done in 60 years. Things move a little at a time.” When the Second Amendment to the Constitution came up, audience members said that voters have the right to redefine the amendment.
Passidomo was then asked about mental health and gun violence. Her reply was that nothing is currently being done in the Florida Legislature to address this issue. Florida remains last in spending on mental health. After the Parkland shootings, legislation was passed to beef up school security, but nothing was allocated for mental health. She also spoke about getting help for babies born addicted to narcotics. These newborns spend days in the NICU to detoxify only to be sent home to still drug addicted parents.
Anissa Karim, Chair of the Collier County Democratic Party, thanked Passidomo for coming and speaking, but said that access to guns is a real problem and that is the difference between the United States and other countries. New Zealand, for example, came up with a weapon ban in six days. She concluded, “Assault weapons don’t belong here. Please take this message to Tallahassee. People with mental health problems are more likely to be the victims of a shooting than the shooters.” The audience loudly applauded.
One audience member stated that even though Florida voters voted to allow the use of medical marijuana, CBD which is derived from hemp is unregulated and the beneficial claims are unsubstantiated. Senator Passidomo was asked to comment and said that Florida law no longer lists hemp as a controlled substance. Thus, there is no regulation of CBD. Medical marijuana is strictly controlled. It must be processed in dispensaries that are clean, healthy and safe.
And finally, Reverend Lisa Lefkow, CEO of Habitat for Humanity Collier County, asked what was being done about affordable housing in the county. Ms. Lefkow stated that there is a real lack of access to affordable housing in Collier County even though Florida is leading the country in solving this problem. Senator Passidomo responded by saying that in order to balance the budget, the Legislature swaps trust fund monies from one project to another, and affordable housing has suffered. The Senator is committed to fixing this problem. “We need to be more creative. And the best way is to start over.” She proposes using affordable housing monies to buy up abandoned stores and empty strip mall centers along major routes to turn them into affordable apartments. She plans to do this by giving owners tax credits to incentivize strip mall and shop owners.