This afternoon, as the state legislature listened to Governor Rick Scott tout the benefits of tax cuts and trumpet his administration's effect on the economy during his final State of the State address, a vastly different picture of Florida was being painted on the banks of the St. Johns River by a group of progressives. At a press conference billed as "Awake the State," one of nearly a dozen similar events across the state that took place simultaneously, local representatives from groups across a spectrum of issues presented a united front against much of the governor's agenda and record.
Calling Florida "one of the least upwardly mobile states in America," Pat McCollough, the Northeast Florida regional director of For Our Future, the issue advocacy group that organized the press conference, said, "After nearly two years of Rick Scott's policies, the rich have gotten richer, while over half of the counties in the state of Florida are stuck in a recession. Families have remained stagnant and nearly half the state would qualify as the working poor." A United Way study released earlier this year found that as of 2015, 45 percent of Floridian households had income levels classified as working poor.
Devin Coleman, subject of a 2017 Folio Weekly cover story, talked about New Florida Majority's efforts to collect the 766,200 verified signatures required to put a constitutional amendment on this year's ballot to automatically restore civil rights to citizens with non-violent felony convictions upon completion of their sentence. "As a result of the hard work throughout the state and the attention of the whole country, according to Florida Department of State Division of Elections, we currently have 669,000-plus verified signatures," he said, adding that he feels confident that they will collect enough signatures to put the amendment on the ballot.
In his State of the State address, Gov. Scott practically patted himself and Florida state House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Land O' Lakes) on the back for their record on education. The group in Jacksonville today did not share his adulation. Former congressional candidate LJ Holloway issued a fiery rebuke of the state diverting public school funds to privately-owned charter schools, and decried the state's education spending, particularly as it effects students in Title I schools, which she said have been left behind.
"Florida ranks 41st in the nation, 41st in the nation, in spending per student, according to Education Week," she said. "...Florida ranks 49th in support for public services, including k-12 services and higher education, according to Tax Policy Center."
Tom Larson of the Sierra Club began his remarks with a plea to lawmakers. "Our legislature has an opportunity to take Florida forward and we're here to promote that opportunity," he said.
Larson urged his fellow activists to demand that the governor spend "constitutionally mandated money" on land and water conservation. Though an overwhelming percentage of voters ratified a constitutional amendment in 2014 that requires lawmakers to allocate at least a third of funds collected from a state real estate tax to land and water conservation--which the Orlando Sentinel reported last year was expected to reach a whopping $740 million this year--the state government has thus far proven unwilling to heed voters' will. Last year, they allocated no such funds to Florida Forever or the Florida Communities Trust in the regular session. The governor's final proposed budget includes $50 million for Florida Forever, the state's main preservation fund; though they support the increase, activists have criticized the governor for his long-term record on the environment and for becoming an "election year environmentalist."
On climate change, Larson said that people across the state need to factor sea level rise into planning decisions. "Here in Jacksonville, we all know too well the risk of flooding," he said, alluding to the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma last September. According to Larson, just one bill addressing this risk has thus far been proposed in the legislature. SB 542, sponsored by state Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami), would require all state-financed construction projects in susceptible areas to conduct a sea level impact study, have it approved by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and for those studies to be made publicly available.
Larson also drew a connection between environmental and economic issues. "Economic development is often the mantra you hear from our state leaders," he said. "Well, the prosperity of our state depends on clean air, clean water, good habitat and vibrant ecosystems."
Larson's remarks focused primarily on the environment, but, like several speakers, he stressed a willingness to support other causes. Collaborating and giving voice to the voiceless was an undeniable theme of Jacksonville's Activate the State, one of 11 such events throughout the state.
Local representatives from New Florida Majority, Indivisible Clay County, Women's March Jacksonville, Jacksonville Progressive Coalition, Take 'Em Down Jax, and the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida also spoke. Theirs was a message of unity and of perceiving progressives as holding a position of strength in the fast-approaching 2018 election cycle.
"We want to take back the senate, we want to take back the house, and we want a blue wave to start happening," said McCollough. "We're progressives."