When I was being recruited to USF for graduate school, I rented a car and drove to Gulfport with my spouse, Cynthia, at the encouragement of friends.
“All the girls come here during off season,” they said. So, we girls decided to check it out.
We fell in love.
We fell in love with the tiny downtown, with the lights, with the water, with the warm hellos, with the adorable bungalows….after a brief six-month stint living next to USF in Tampa, we knew we needed to get to Gulfport. So, we grabbed a Gabber. Within 30 minutes we had found an apartment right in the middle of town and had put down a deposit. We were home.
For many years now, this little village has been our refuge. We’ve made dear friends, started businesses, finished graduate school, run for office. Like us, our neighbors love their little slice of paradise. Yet, the policies, budgets and statutes being implemented in Tallahassee, Clearwater and D.C. all potentially impact our safe havens here in southwest Pinellas County.
The aim of this column is to look at what is going on outside of our community and how it may impact us within our communities.
In some cases, it is absolutely evident. For example, the governor’s executive orders to open up the vaccine to the four million residents who are 65 years and older, an insufficient supply of the vaccine being issued from D.C. via Tallahassee, and the inadequate system the county set up to handle the demand for the vaccine caused system-wide failures. The collective outpouring of anger is because most people anticipated this breakdown, which mirrored the breakdown of the unemployment system just months ago.
In other instances, the impact of D.C. and Tallahassee on our cities and neighborhoods are less apparent. For example, I recently warned local mayors that the rule changes enacted in the state house could be detrimental to home rule.
Why? Well, the truth is in any legislative session there are A-round priorities and various B-round priorities of leadership in the state house and senate. Since session is only 60 days, leadership in either chamber only has the time (and political capital) to push through their A-round priorities. These tend to be a mixture of hyper-partisan legislation, plus some personal projects. Although both the house and Senate have seen many bills attacking home rule in past sessions, most of these bills never made it through both chambers to become law. Time just ran out. This session, however, Florida State House Speaker Chris Sprowls has made some significant changes to the rules, which could very well result in moving more bills through the house floor – including B-round priorities like attacks on local governance.
What rules did he change? He introduced time limits for debate and questions. He also made changes to make it more difficult to insert amendments onto bills coming to the house floor. Members of the legislature use detailed Q&A, extensive lists of amendments and rigorous debate to highlight the problems in a piece of legislation – and to make their case before their colleagues and before Florida for why any particular bill should be voted down.
Yet, fully deliberating legislation from the floor also serves to slow down the process. The result is that A-round priorities may move, but the clock runs out before B-round priorities can make it through. While we have watched committees attack home rule for years, until this year, they rarely had the time to make it over the finish line.
We don’t yet know what our state legislative session will hold. But the next few months will be a flurry of activity from Tallahassee to D.C. – as the state legislature gets ready for session, the 117th Congress convenes, and the Biden Administration begins its first 100 days.
In the coming months, I will follow these efforts and highlight some of the initiatives and legislation – on regional, state and occasionally national levels – that may impact our county and our community, particularly as it relates to home rule.
Home rule protects our cities’ individual character. And, when our small cities and the communities within give us so much, isn’t it our duty to protect them?
I think so.
Jennifer Webb is a former member of the Florida State House, District 69, a founding partner of Omni Public, and an applied anthropologist. She lives in Gulfport with her wife, Cynthia, and their adopted pup, Bailey.