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Senator reports on Legislative Session

--Guest commentary--

June 24, 2015
By Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

The Legislature finished the business of the 2015 Special Session by passing a fiscally responsible balanced budget Friday. The Florida Senate unanimously approved the plan, and it found bipartisan support in the Florida House of Representatives as well. Below you will find highlights of the state's 2015-2016 budget. If you have any questions regarding state funding please call our Fort Myers office at 338-2570.

- The budget makes strategic investments in Florida's future:

The Legislature increased per student funding, doubled performance funding in our state university system, and expanded the eligibility of Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts for students with unique abilities.

We also created the Florida Postsecondary Comprehensive Transition Program to enhance postsecondary options that help people with unique abilities achieve their educational and career goals.

Together these important initiatives will expand the pathway to economic independence for all students across Florida.

- Funding secured to protect Florida's environment:

In 2014, the voters across Florida spoke loudly when they passed the Water and Land Conservation Amendment, giving the Legislature an opportunity to provide an even greater focus on Florida's water and natural resources.

The budget includes $55 million in land acquisition, $50 million for springs, and $81.8 million in Everglades restoration to preserve Florida's natural environment for future generations.

- Reducing the tax burden on Floridians by $400 million:

In addition to meaningful funding in these key areas, we passed a broad-based tax cut package that leaves money in Floridian's pockets, furthers our low-tax, pro-business climate and cultivates an economic environment that promotes growth and prosperity. The tax cut package includes lowering the communication services tax on Floridians' phones and television services permanently, establishing a 10-day Back-To-School Sales Tax Holiday, and removing the sales tax on college textbooks for one year.

Local Southwest Florida budget highlights include:

- Water: $81.8 million in Everglades restoration to preserve Florida's natural environment for future generations. This includes $49 million funded towards important water storage projects like the C-43 Reservoir and the C-44 Reservoir, which will be able to hold water released from Lake Okeechobee and keep it from reaching our estuaries.

Other local Southwest Florida water projects that will improve water quality and storage include: Lee County Caloosahatchee Creeks Preserve Restoration ($250,000); Lee County Fichter's Creek Restoration ($300,000); Lee County FPL Powerline Easement Water Quality Improvement Project ($200,000); Lee County Hydrologic Restoration of Bob Janes Preserve ($100,000); Lee County Hydrologic Restoration of Telegraph Creek Preserve Restoration ($125,000); Lee County Prairie Pines Preserve Restoration ($300,000); Lee County Yellow Fever Creek-Gator Slough Transfer Facility Project ($175,000); Lee County Spanish Creek at Daniels Preserve Restoration ($300,000);

Department of Environmental Protection assessment and evaluation of additional lands within the optimum park boundary of Gasparilla Island State Park for potential purchase ($1 million); and Punta Gorda Reverse Osmosis Water Treatment Plant and Brackish Groundwater Supply Project ($4 million).

- Education: $6.8 Million for the Florida Gulf Coast's top Capital Outlay priority the South Access Road, which will improve transportation on the campus and student safety. Florida Gulf Coast University Academic and Career Attainment funding ($4,456,423).

- Transportation: $1,000,000 for buying Right of Way to expedite Burnt Store Road, which is an integral Hurricane Evacuation Route in Lee and Charlotte Counties. Big Carlos Pass Bridge Project Development & Environmental Study ($1 million).

- Beaches: Blind Pass Ecozone Restoration ($60,000); Charlotte County Beach Restoration ($2.5 million); and Bonita Beach Nourishment ($500,000).

- Community Development: Punta Gorda Vietnam War Memorial ($150,000); Fort Myers Sesquicentennial Foundation, Inc ($190,000); and Marco Island Multipurpose Veterans Community Service Center ($2.5 million).

- Health, Mental Health, and Justice: Community action teams for Mental Health in Lee County (Saluscare) ($750,000); $164,250 in nonrecurring general revenue funds is appropriated to the Salvation Army - Fort Myers non-secure treatment program to fund six mental health treatment beds for clients diagnosed with co-occurring disorders; $250,000 in nonrecurring general revenue funds is appropriated to the Salvation Army - Bob Janes Triage and Low Demand Center to reduce the number of persons with known mental illness or substance abuse issues who are arrested and sent to the Lee County Jail for low-level, non-violent offenses; $1 million to be used to expand the Charlotte County Justice Center.

The Legislature's greatest challenge in crafting a balanced budget was to account for the phasing out of the federal Low Income Pool program, absent a long-term strategy to address health care for the uninsured. This significant change to the way we fund services, provided through Medicaid and to the uninsured, required us to dedicate $450 million in general revenue to help offset tremendous losses to our community and safety net hospitals, including Lee Memorial Hospital, as well as our medical schools and teaching hospitals.



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