Local lawmakers sat center stage last night as government officials and citizens bent their ears on a variety of topics. The Escambia County State Legislative Delegation—consisting of Rep. Clay Ford, Rep. Clay Ingram and Sen. Greg Evers—held court with constituents in the Jean and Paul Amos Performance Studio on the rain-drenched campus of Pensacola State College.
“We call ourselves the Clay-caucus in Tallahassee,” joked Ford, before he and Evers elected Ingram as the delegation’s new presiding officer.
The trio was first approached by a string of local officials. Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward’s chief of staff, John Asmar, was looking for flexibility in dealing with pensions. An Escambia County representative relayed concerns with Medicaid costs and the fact that the county is not allowed to enter into public-private partnerships.
Century Mayor Freddie McCall explained to the delegation that his town was hoping to opt out of Escambia’s recently levied 4-cent gas tax. He said the additional tax—meant to fund mass transit—would only drive people to seek gas at a nearby station in Flomanton, Ala.
“It’s a quarter mile beyond the state line,” the mayor told them. “The service station will be taking all of our business.”
Larry Walker, a board member of the Escambia County Utilities Authority, asked the delegation for revised audit regulations. He said the ECUA currently faces a management audit every three years, whereas he felt every 5 years would be “more appropriate.”
“We’re a very mature organization, now,” Walker said, also requesting that ECUA be allowed to purchase fuel in the same manner as municipalities and counties, forgoing state sales tax and given access to a wider selection of fuels—“especially diesel fuel, and to get the purple fuel, the purple diesel instead of the regular.”
Escambia County Supervisor of Elections David Stafford also addressed the delegation. He said changes to the state’s election rules were needed, citing problems during November’s election.
“Number one, is addressing the length of the ballot,” Stafford said, pointing out that legislators do not face the same 75-word limit as citizens when writing amendments; he suggested the lawmakers impose the limit on themselves. “Pretty simple proposal.”
The elections supervisor also said changes were needed where early voting is concerned.
“The other sort of big-ticket item is early voting,” Stafford said. “It’s something that really does need to be addressed, we need some flexibility.”
The legislators also heard from people speaking on behalf of ARC Gateway and the PACE Center for Girls. About a dozen people attended the forum to express concerns related to the area’s juvenile justice issues.
University of West Florida President Judy Bense asked the state legislators to reconsider cuts to higher education—“that is beginning to erode the quality of education they are getting”—and requested that $118 million be added to the budget, in effect dropping a student’s tuition cost by 15 percent.
“Every university president has supported this,” she said.
Bense also asked the lawmakers for help in UWF’s mission to offer degrees in physical therapy and nurse partitioning, as well as its football aspirations.
“My gosh, I wanna start football at the University of West Florida—I need a little help,” she told them. “I’ve tried Plan A, I’ve tried Plan B. You’re seeing Plan C.”
Rep. Ford wanted to know if UWF would be taking Gov. Rick Scott up on his challenge to colleges to offer some bachelor degrees for $10,000.
“I’m sorry to say it’s not really an option for us,” Bense said.
Other speakers last night included representatives from the League of Women Voters, the AARP, and the Early Learning Coalition. Tony McCray offered up proposed legislative language aimed at ensuring that jobs generated through the expected oil-spill RESTORE money would be going to local residents.
Lee Magaha, Jr., son of former longtime Escambia County Clerk of Court Ernie Lee Magaha, also spoke to the lawmakers. He said write-in candidates should be held to the same standards as regular candidates.
Magaha’s dad lost his reelection bid to current Clerk of Court Pam Childers. The race featured a write-in candidate.
“When write-ins run, voters lose,” Magaha said, asking the legislators to “close the loophole” and put a stop to “shenanigans” and “monkeywrenching.”
“Thank you, Mr. Magaha, I know you’re a passionate advocate of the issue,” said Rep. Ingram.