The Florida Legislature convenes Tuesday for its annual 60-day adventure, and tourism — specifically the fate of the state’s tourism “umbrella” agency — could be one of the session’s hot topics.

Building roads, securing schools, hurricane relief, supporting tourism and arming — yes, arming — county commissioners and school board members are among the priorities for Northwest Florida lawmakers this year in Tallahassee.


The Florida Legislature convenes Tuesday for its annual 60-day adventure, and tourism — specifically the fate of the state’s tourism “umbrella” agency — could be one of the session’s hot topics.


State Rep. Mel Ponder, R-Destin, has introduced a bill that would extend the life of Visit Florida for another eight years. The agency’s authorization to operate is due to expire July 1. Ponder’s legislation would extend that to Oct. 1, 2028.



“I’m optimistic and hopeful” it will pass, Ponder said. “In Northwest Florida we know the benefit of Visit Florida. They partner with us whether in an oil spill, a hurricane, whatever the case may be. Plus, it’s the umbrella organization for the state.”


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Ponder and Brad Drake, whose district includes Walton County, both see the benefit of a state tourism organization and though the governor and senate president are in their corner, House Speaker Jose Oliva has argued that the state can draw tourists without Visit Florida.


“Everybody has their own philosophy. I believe my area, particularly South Walton, has flourished because a significant amount of money has been spent on tourism advertisement” said Drake, R-Eucheeanna. “At one time we were undiscovered territory. Now people come visit.”


Panama City’s Jay Trumbull and Jayer Williamson, whose district includes Santa Rosa County and North Okaloosa, are taking a more cautious stance.



Trumbull is the chairman of the Transportation and Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee. In 2019 when the House decided to cut the Visit Florida budget from $78 million to $50 million and extend its authorization for a year, approval came through Trumbull’s committee.


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“It’s a body decision, in the House and in the Senate,” Trumbull said of the reauthorization and refunding question. “If I had to guess, I’d say this is something the presiding officers are going to hash out in the next couple of weeks. I don’t believe any decision will be made in the first few weeks of session. But I think in the end everybody will be happy.”


Trumbull’s tie-in to appropriations earned him a seat at the table recently when state economist Amy Baker spoke to lawmakers. He said Baker was “much less bullish” on the economy than in the past — predicting an $867 million drop in expected revenues over the next two years — and for that reason he believes this Legislature’s highest 2020 priority could be belt tightening.


“The biggest thing we need to be doing is looking for places where we can be more conservative fiscally,” he said.


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Okaloosa County School Superintendent Marcus Chambers said his highest priority for 2020 was continuing work to increase security at schools, but not all school districts in Florida are apparently as committed to armoring their school buildings as Okaloosa has been.


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A grand jury impaneled following the mass murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland to study school security statewide reported in December it had found widespread deficiencies in the implementation of safety protocols in many districts. It called on the state to find ways to help districts do better or to put some teeth into mechanisms to make them do better.


Ponder said he hopes his fellow legislators support him in doing more to ensure the state’s schools are properly protected.


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“I am a firm believer these kids in our school districts need to feel safe,” he said. “Our district did not get enough funding (last year) to support security.”


Ponder said he’d like to see the state at least continue to provide security funding at current levels and would advocate for increased funding for hardening and increased officer presence.


“The criminals are not going to follow the rules. Maybe if they know there are SRO’s or security guards or guardians on campus they’ll think twice,” he said.


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State Sen. George Gainer, Trumbull and Williamson all plan to work to see that state money continues to flow into rebuilding Bay County and surrounding areas in the wake of 2018’s Hurricane Michael.



Trumbull has introduced about 14 bills seeking funding for water, stormwater or sewer system work in Bay County. He said he considers most state money going to Hurricane Michael-related projects necessary to “fill in the gaps“ and assist communities with issues that should and will be primarily paid for with federal dollars.


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Williamson, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee and chairs an appropriations subcommittee, has also introduced a number of Hurricane Michael relief bills. He said Trumbull had asked him to assist in moving legislation designed to help Panama City and other municipalities affected by the storm.


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“It’s about us in the Panhandle coming together as a delegation working for each other and with each other to make the Panhandle better and help the people affected by the storm,” he said. “This is probably a natural fit for me because I’m already in appropriations.”


Gainer said the Northwest Florida delegation had decided to introduce several hurricane relief-style bills this session as opposed to making a single large request for dollars.


“What we’re trying to do is separate it so our fellow legislators will consider it in a little different light,” he said.


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Gainer, as chairman of the Senate’s Finance and Tax Committee and a member of the Appropriations Committee, said he hopes to secure some funding for the numerous road and infrastructure projects Northwest Florida is set to embark upon.



“We need help with our roads and infrastructure. We need to improve transportation in Okaloosa County and we need to provide housing in Bay County to get folks in to do the work that needs to be done,” said Gainer, whose district encompasses all of Bay and most of Okaloosa.


“They’re spending so much on the toll roads — for a massive road building project championed by Senate President Bill Galvano last year — it has hurt us a little bit,” Gainer said.


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Sen. Doug Broxson, who represents a portion of Okaloosa along with Santa Rosa and Escambia counties, included among his priorities the replacement of a building on the Pensacola State College campus to allow it to house STEM and cyber security programs.


Broxson also wants to find funding for a Santa Rosa County water reclamation facility to be built in East Milton.


It was Ponder, acting on a request from Okaloosa County Commissioner and longtime law officer Graham Fountain, who introduced a bill that would allow some local elected officials to bear arms while doing the people’s business.


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Under HB 183, “an elected member of a specified governing body who holds a license to carry a handgun or concealed weapon” can bring that firearm or concealed weapon “to a meeting of the governing body of which he or she is a member.”


The legislation would apply to members of city councils, county commissions and school boards. Ponder said he intends to remove language that would also allow weapons to be brought into special taxing district board meetings.


Fountain, who wrote the bill, noted that there had been an armed confrontation a few years back at a Bay County School Board meeting. He said deputies or police officers are not always available to attend meetings, and there have been times when employees have been threatened or stalked.


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“We just wanted all of our elected officials who carry guns to have the same rights our citizens have,” he said.