SEBRING – With the stroke of Gov. Rick Scott’s pen, the state’s record-setting, $77 billion election-year budget and 159 other bills approved by the Legislature went into effect Tuesday and the trickle down into Highlands County is being viewed with optimism.
The laws range from the “Florida GI Bill,” which is intended to make Florida the most military-friendly state in the nation, to lowering college costs and banning the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors.
In Highlands County, the budget, education, military, law enforcement and guns have some of most significant impacts. Other bills and approved by the Legislature and signed by Scott regard charities and marketing, road measures, food safety, constitutional conventions, juvenile justice, human trafficking, ethics and sports.
Concerning the budget, the county’s total Fiscal Year 2013-2014 Budget is $122,752,786, adopted by the county commission Sept. 17, 2013.
Highlands County Office of Management and Budget Director Tim Mechling Wednesday stressed state money isn’t “automatically given” and the money is reserved for state appropriations for specific purposes, and at this point it’s hard to determine how much of the $77 billion will reach Highlands County. He said appropriations would add funding for libraries, provide a base grant of the Highlands County Emergency Operations Center and money for the county Housing Department Programs such as the Home Buyer Initiative Package.
“A lot of that isn’t a direct line. What that amount translates into, I don’t know the dollar value,” he said. “Overall, the fact they didn’t cut programs or funding for programs will ultimately help the county in the areas that we do receive appropriations for.”
For the Highlands County School District, there is about $2.2 million in net new revenue for the 2014-15 school year, said Mike Averyt, district assistant superintendent and head of operations. The state sets revenue and gives the district an effective millage rate, which is levied to participate in state funding.
“So it is what it is,” said Averyt, who added the district is working on its new budget although it has yet to be balanced.
Among the passed bills includes requiring the district to set up a process for parents to contest textbooks and materials in the class, which Averyt said the district is still working on how that process would work.
With about 12,900 military veterans living full time in Highlands County, military budget expenditures and bills are also at the forefront, particularly relating to the Florida GI Bill, which gives university tuition waivers for veterans, pays for base improvements, increases employment for veterans and gives $1 million to “sell” the state to veterans.
Robert Hampton, student services and veterans advisor at South Florida State College, said the new bills are welcome news locally, particularly the GI Bill. The bill allows for an out-of-state tuition waiver for up to 110 percent of credit hours needed to complete a program, which should increase incentive for out-of-state student-veterans to go to Florida and Highlands County for education and get them back into college sooner.
Hampton, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 2 1/2 years, said about 100 military veterans attend classes at South Florida.
“I know veterans that sat out an entire year because they couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition. We’re very excited because we’ll have veterans that don’t have to go back home to go to classes. If they relocated from somewhere else, they can start classes right away,” said Hampton.
In addition, HB 851 allows children of immigrants in the country illegally to get in-state college tuition at state universities, if the students attended secondary school in Florida for at least three years prior to graduation, regardless of their immigration status.
Also within the budget ranks, law enforcement legislative bills regarding notification to the sheriff when a sexual offender is released and requiring colleges and universities to notify students when a sexual predator is on campus became effective.
Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton said locally the sheriff’s office will gather information on an offender who the State Attorney may be referring for civil commitment and will notify the Department of Children and Families of an inmate’s pending release in advance and for the arranged transportation to a facility if necessary.
As far as predators on campus, Benton said the more information available to law enforcement, the more opportunity there is to valuate the potential for future offending and making custody decisions to protect communities.
“Anytime that we have one more tool to help protect our most vulnerable children, having the ability to keep a serious sexual offender-predator in custody, the better chance we have to prevent future attacks. This bill does put more work on our members here at the sheriff’s office, however, one child saved is worth all of the effort.”
Other than gun-toting deputies, citizens will also be impacted by new gun legislation. Among three new gun bills, one prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage or increase rates based on customers owning guns or ammunition and another allows tax collectors’ offices to handle concealed-weapon license applications.
“I think the new laws are good; they’ll expedite the gun-owning process,” said Don Haverkamp, a Lake Placid National Rifle Association training counselor.
Another bill expands a public records exemption that covers the identities of people who apply for concealed-carry state licenses.
“I think they’re positive and I think they’re positive for Highlands County and the state in general,” he said.
Also as of July 1, private information of people involved with animal research at public research facilities will no longer be public and the state’s unpaid poet laureate position will no longer be a lifetime appointment.
All but two of the 159 new laws were approved by the Legislature during the session that ended in May. The other two were bills approved in 2013.