Rodrigues Faces Tough Questions At Chamber Luncheon

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Representative Ray Rodrigues faced some tough questions about Amendment One funds and fracking at the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce’s monthly luncheon on Thursday, April 14th.

Rodrigues – who was elected to represent the 76th District, an area that includes Bonita Springs, Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel – in 2012, began his presentation by talking explaining the various committees he’s served on in the House and what he feels are the most important things accomplished by those committees.

“I am currently Vice-Chair of Finance and Tax, and this committee determines what the revenue streams will be in state government,” he said. “Most of you have heard of the Appropriations Committee, which funds state projects, well, Finance and Tax is where that funding comes from. We also determine whether or not we need to raise taxes. This was a good year in that we decided we did not need to.”

Rodrigues explained that this year’s legislative session was held earlier than normal, which was a good thing because the state’s budget got done quicker but a bad thing because – at the time lawmakers were trying to find money for everything – there were less dollars available than what had been anticipated.

“We grew by about $400 million less than we thought we would,” he said. “The bad thing about that is that the Lee County delegation had been asked to request more funding to help speed of the Estero Boulevard reconstruction project. This is very important to the businesses on the island, so I made that request, which unfortunately got turned down. My hope is to continue that effort at the next session.”

Rodrigues said he is proud of the fact that he was able to help get a bill passed that would eliminate sales tax on equipment sold for manufacturing, saying the state needs ‘more legs on our stool’ than the traditional tourism, construction and agriculture.

Another committee Rodrigues serves on is Children, Families and Seniors. He told a tragic story about a 14-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who died of dehydration after being strapped to a bed in a 24-hour care facility.

“This is a facility that takes care of kids who need help around the clock and whose families can’t afford it,” he said. “I found out that this was the only facility in the state allowed to provide this type of care due to a state statute saying that anyone providing this service had to have been in business since 1989. So they had a monopoly and could do whatever they wanted! I filed a bill to change that statute, Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto picked it up in the Senate and now I’m proud to say that situation has changed. Out of everything I’ve done since I’ve been in office, this is what I’m most proud of.”

Rodrigues then talked about the Energy and Utilities Committee and how he filed an amendment to the state constitution that would allow businesses to install solar panels and not have to worry that their taxes would increase.

“This is something that already applies to residential, now it applies to commercial too,” he said. “Florida currently gets 70% of its energy from natural gas – that’s something I want to see change. I want our state to move to the head of the pack in terms of solar – to unleash the full potential of the sunshine state!”

Representative Rodrigues then attempted to explain his stance on fracking, stating that the bills he’s filed every year since he’s been elected are actually designed to keep it from spreading.

“This is something I’ve filed every year for the four years I’ve been on the committee of Regulatory Affairs and I’ve not been successful,” he said. “When I got into office, I heard stories that this practice could come to Florida which shocked me because our bedrock is limestone, which is very porous. I also discovered Florida has no law on the books governing this whatsoever. I looked at what other states had done to establish best management practices for this and the only one who required disclosure of the chemicals that go into the ground is Texas, so I modeled my bill after theirs. In 2014, after we learned that an oil company in Collier County had actually done fracking, I really wanted Florida to have a strong regulatory framework. I also wanted to put a moratorium on the practice until a study could be conducted as to what the effects would be on limestone.”

Rodrigues emphatically stated that he did what be believed to be the best thing for both environmentalist and the oil industry, and that he met with a group of environmentalists and included all of their concerns in his bill.

“I can give anyone who asks a copy of their concerns and show where all of them are addressed in the bill,” he said. “The problem is, the groups who were successful in killing the bill demanded that all drilling – including conventional extraction – be banned until the study was complete, not just unconventional methods like fracking. My concern is that until we get a bill like this passed, fracking is essentially legal and there are no requirements for companies to disclose the chemicals they’re putting into the ground.”

At the end of his presentation, Rodrigues said he was happy that funding got appropriated for water projects, that Floridians will see a reduction in their tax bills, that Legacy Florida was passed and that Governor Rick Scott did not veto funding for Lovers Key State Park like he did last year.

When he opened the floor for questions, Pete Crumpacker – who is not a member of the Chamber but was at the luncheon as a guest – became fairly passionate when he demanded to know why Rodrigues’ fracking bill allows companies to keep ‘proprietary secrets’.

Rodrigues responded by saying that federal law protects trade secrets, and that companies would have to disclose them under his bill – just to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) rather than the general public.

“Were this to pass, it would be the strictest disclosure regulations in the country,” he said. “If you can find a way to require them to disclose trade secrets and have that stand up in federal court, I’d be willing to change it.”

The Sand Paper asked him if he’d support an all out ban on fracking should the language clearly state it would be against unconventional drilling practices only, and Rodrigues replied yes, at least until a study could be completed.

Rodrigues faced another tough questioner in the form of Lizbeth Freeman, an attorney who is a Chamber member. Her question concerned the legislature’s use of Amendment One funds, and when she asked a follow-up question before Rodrigues could finish answering, he became visibly frustrated – prompting Chamber Chairman Dave Anderson to ask that everyone ‘calm down’.

“I will tell you that I support spending the full amount of that funding for the purposes of what the voters actually voted on – what was on the ballot,” he said.

We had spoken with Rodrigues earlier and asked him what that meant, and this is how he explained it to us:

“I believe that the Legislature is spending all of Amendment One funds on the purposes for which it was intended,” he said. “Before this went on the ballot, the group behind the amendment went before the Florida Supreme Court – something required of all proposed constitutional amendments – and the justices asked them what the money would be used for. They said it would be used to service the state’s debt on the land it had already acquired for conservation, for operations and maintenance of that land, for water quality projects, for Everglades restoration and for additional land acquisition.”

That being said, Rodrigues pointed out that – prior to Amendment One – the House tried to get bonding for Florida Forever projects, but was denied by the Senate.

“The state used to spend $150 million a year on Florida Forever using bonds, but that ended,” he told us. “Now, this year, we have $200 million/year for the next 20 years dedicated to Everglades restoration and there is a provision that directs the DEP and the South Florida Water Management District to prioritize all water quality projects for the next 10 years to reduce releases to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.”

A check on Ballotpedia.org, Amendment One, also known as the ‘Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative’, was ‘designed to dedicate 33% of net revenue from the existing excise tax on documents to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund’. A summary of the ballot language states that:

“Land Acquisition Trust Fund shall be expended only for the following purposes: 1. To finance or refinance the acquisition and improvement of land, water areas, and related property interests – including conservation easements, and resources for conservation lands; wildlife management areas; lands that protect water resources and drinking water sources – including lands protecting the water quality and quantity of rivers, lakes, streams, springsheds and lands providing recharge for groundwater and aquifer systems; lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area and the Everglades Protection Area; beaches and shores; outdoor recreation lands – including recreational trails, parks, and urban open space; rural landscapes; working farms and ranches; historic or geologic sites; together with management, restoration of natural systems, and the enhancement of public access or recreational enjoyment of conservation lands; and 2. To pay the debt service on bonds issued.”

It also states that money deposited into the Fund not be co-mingled with the state’s General Revenue fund. The amendment passed with the required supermajority of 74.96% on November 4, 2014.

 

Keri Hendry Weeg