Goin’ back to Tally Part III


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Posted January 14, 2022 | By Matthew Cretul
matthew@ocalagazette.com

The third part in this ongoing series highlights two members of the Marion County Legislative Delegation in the Florida Senate, Senators Dennis Baxley and Keith Perry.  Both discuss some of their individual priorities, as well as considerations and thoughts in various areas leading up to the start of Florida’s legislative session.

Sen. Dennis Baxley speaks during the Marion County Delegation at the Klein Conference Center at the College of Central Florida in Ocala, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

Senator Dennis Baxley

Click here for a full list of bills sponsored by Senator Baxley for the 2022 session.

Dennis Baxley represents Florida Senate District 12, which contains all of Sumter as well as parts of Lake and Marion Counties.  In addition to being a legislator, Baxley lists his occupation as a Funeral Director and Consultant for Hiers-Baxley Funeral Services.

He received his AA from the (then) College of Central Florida in 1972, his BA in Psychology and Sociology from Florida State University in 1974, and his AS in Funeral Services from Miami-Dade College in 1975.

As he heads to Tallahassee, Baxley sees the upcoming congressional gathering as a state-wide dialogue on what should take precedent.

“That’s what a legislative session is…a conversation for 22 million people to decide which things we’re going to prioritize and how we can be responsible,” he said.

Some of the overall priorities he sees for the session are those dealing with personal autonomy.

“We’re protecting freedom. We’re very concerned about individual rights, and particularly regarding health. You’ve seen the governor lead out with some strong positions and we have supported him in that,” Baxley said.

On setting his legislative agenda

Outside of the functions of the position that require him to focus on areas such as redistricting, cabinet confirmation hearings, and balancing the budget, Baxley said he’s finalizing his list of what he personally plans to focus on.

“I’m still really assessing that because I’m also trying to look at the environment that we’ll be working in. And, you know, something might be a good idea, but is it the right time,” said Baxley.

As he puts his agenda together, Baxley said it’s a mix of his priorities and those that are presented to him by constituents.

“I’m doing a bill for more training for people that work with Alzheimer’s, and so there’s this conflict that’s going to take time and effort from the providers to make sure,” he said. “But I also know from going through this with my own parents, how important it is to have those employees that are serving, have a better grip on what they’re working with, with an Alzheimer’s patient and how to communicate with them.”

Baxley pointed to the issue as something that blends past personal experience and an ability to use his position to help others.

On individual vs overall priorities

Baxley is of the mindset that the legislation he proposes is not so sacrosanct that it must remain as is throughout the legislative process. He says he hopes that mindset permeates through his colleagues as well.

“Most of the bills I don’t view as being sacred and untouchable and can’t be changed,” he said. “I think there’s often a meeting place that is workable, that can deal with unintended consequences and that’s what the review policy process does.”

As the original sponsor of the “stand your ground” legislation that later expanded across the country as other states emulated it, Baxley has seen his personal priorities take the spotlight but he understands that might not always be the case.

“I think right now, some of the things we’ve been through, helping people get more in the big picture is more important than my individual concerns,” said Baxley. “And so I’ll raise them, I’ll work them, but I always accept that it may or may not be the time for that to take center stage. “

“So I’m tempering my activity because I think we need to stay focused on these majors,” he said.

On helping local communities with funding for projects

Baxley believes directing funding to local communities is something that might not grab all the headlines but is vital for the areas receiving it.

“I do file a lot of appropriation requests for local communities who have projects that they need some help with. That is a big deal to me. It’s not top-line news stories, but in fact, it makes a big difference,” he said.

He pointed to the funds he was able to secure for his district in the last session and said that while areas of the state like South Florida get all the attention, his job is to look out for his constituents.

“I think last year we brought back about $35 million to projects that were being already done in local government that we could assist with,” said Baxley. “So that will be a priority for me to make sure that this portion of Florida is, is reaching fair equity.”

“Same thing with education dollars and every other large pot, you want to make sure that’s making it to the ground back to your district, and that’s become a top priority for me,” he said.

On redistricting

One of the issues he knows will dominate the upcoming session is redistricting.  It is something Baxley said will impact every member of the legislature.

“Everybody will be running in a new district; we’ve had significant growth in the state,” said Baxley.  “So it will require some adjusting to develop the one man, one vote, in each district. So that process is going to be very important.”

“And the outcome of it, of course, is instructive to all the members as to what if any, positions they can run for after these new maps are adopted, and we’re very hopeful that it’ll be a fair and legal document,” he said.

On SB 940: Professional Structural Engineers (Referred to Regulated Industries; Commerce and Tourism; Rules) and SB 942: Fees/Professional Structural Engineer Licensing (Referred to Regulated Industries; Commerce and Tourism; Appropriations)

Tragedy often spawns new regulations, as well as changes and updates to existing legislation, and the collapse of a condo tower in Miami last year that killed nearly 100 people is an example of that.

Baxley said the incident was behind SB 940 and SB 942, both of which focus on structural engineering.

“Right now I’m looking at what happened at Sunrise and I’ve got a bill to actually do a licensing of structural engineers of any buildings over four stories tall,” he said. “And I think the industry is ready for that and many of them realize that there needs to be specialized skills, and how these structures are designed in checked for their stability over time.”

On committee assignments

Any congressional member who proposes legislation hopes that during its journey the bill reaches the floor for a vote, and ultimately passes.  But before it gets to the floor, the bill must first make its way through various stages, including stops in committee, where it could ultimately die.

To avoid this, Baxley says connecting with committee members and describing the proposed legislation’s intent and impact is vital to its success.

“You have to reach out to each member on those committees and help them understand what the bill is about, what it would do, and why you think it’s important for it to pass. And so you just have to advocate for it,” he said.

Planning your own agenda is one thing, but getting other members to agree on a bill’s importance might be another situation altogether, said Baxley.

“The pressure points come when you start trying to get on somebody’s agenda,” he said.  “You have to get the chairman to hear your bill. And so there’s a lot of legwork to it, in addition to managing the details…there’s a lot of deference given to committee chairs about what bills they hear.

Once in committee, bills may be marked up or amended, and Baxley said this step is to be expected.

“Most bills wind up looking different than when you start, very few bills come through in original form,” he said. “There’s some adjustments that are made as people raise different issues with those bills.”

Not only are other members’ concerns addressed in committee markups, but Baxley said they take into account how Governor DeSantis views the issue as well.

“And of course, whatever the governor’s priorities are very important to us and he’s certainly going to get due consideration on anything that he’s proposing,” he said.  “After all, he’s the one that has to sign the bills into law.”

On confirmation hearings

Something the Senate is tasked with that the House is not is confirming gubernatorial appointments for positions, and Baxley said his position on the committee that deals with confirmations requires him to play a direct role in the process.

“One of my major responsibilities is chair of ethics and elections,” he said. “And one of the big things that we do there is all of the Senate confirmation clearings for these names to go to the floor that have been appointed to different positions.”

It’s not just a few hearings here and there either, but something that will require a large amount of time and attention, said Baxley.

“There’s tons of them, I mean, there will be in excess of 100,” he said. “ I’m sure some of them have cleared committee, but then they still have to clear the process of going to the floor. So getting those people confirmed in the positions they’ve been appointed to that require Senate confirmation is a major piece of my work.”

And while having a governor in the same party makes the process a little easier, Baxley said he still has a job to do in vetting the nominees.

“I obviously don’t want to embarrass the candidate; I don’t want to embarrass the governor,” he said.  “But I sure don’t want to embarrass the Senate that we didn’t do our homework and check off and make sure we’re good to go with the appointees of different things.”

On the proposed toll road

One issue that just about every member of the Marion delegation must contend with is the proposed Northern Turnpike Extension. Baxley said he understands the apprehension felt by those residents directly affected by the proposed road.

“I think you’ve got to back up from it a little bit and see the different dynamics,”  he said.  “You understand the concern of individual property owners that feel like their life and their environmental concerns are going to be disrupted by roadways being built.”

However, a county attempting to dictate where state roads can and cannot be placed might come back to bite them in the end.

“At the same time. If you get in a posture that you’re telling the department of transportation you don’t want any roads, you won’t get any roads. And that’s a big problem,” Baxley said.

Baxley believes though, that there are certain elements in the method the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) uses that could be handled better.

”One of the problems I have with their processes, they released like four routes,” he said.  “So you’ve got everybody that’s connected to those four routes getting tons of mail from attorneys who do litigation for taking a property for public purpose.”

And so you’ve got four times the number of people that get upset and concerned that it’s going to disrupt their lives and their environment,” Baxley said.

While he didn’t take a position on either side of the debate, according to Baxley, there should be some attention on tightening up the process.

“So I’m of the mindset let’s figure out the best route, let’s work with the local transportation authority here, and let’s narrow the focus to something doable,” he said. “So I’m not for a road or against a road, I just think there’s a factor here that needs to be thought through and that is how do we manage this atmosphere for our constituents to be able to get around.”

Sen. Keith Perry speaks during the Marion County Delegation at the Klein Conference Center at the College of Central Florida in Ocala, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

Senator Keith Perry

Keith Perry represents Senate District 8, which consists of Alachua, Putnam, and parts of Marion Counties.  In addition to being a legislator, Perry lists his occupation as the founder and CEO of Perry Roofing Contractors.

Click here for a full list of bills sponsored by Senator Perry for the 2022 session.

On SB 342 Juvenile Diversion Program Expunction and S 344 Public Records/Nonjudicial Record of the Arrest of a Minor (Both currently in Appropriations)

A bill of Perry’s that was passed last year but vetoed by Governor Ron DeSantis focused on expanding the types of records that can be expunged from a minor’s file.  Perry says current legislation allows for misdameanors to be removed, and SB342 looks to increase those levels, he said.

“Right now, for juveniles, if they’re arrested on a [non-violent] misdemeanor,” said Perry, “The courts and the prosecutor might agree to allow them to go through a diversionary program.”

“If they go through the diversionary program right now, their misdemeanor record is automatically expunged at the completion [of the program], and we’re going to expand that to felonies,” he said.

The governor, according to Perry, had some concerns about possible loopholes for more serious offenders.  He said the new proposed bill contains updated language addressing the governor’s apprehensions.

“The governor vetoed it [last year], the reason being is what he didn’t want is anybody with some kind of a sex crime or a gun crime to be able to have their records automatically expunged,” said Perry. “I agree with that, even though that’s not happening now, there’s nobody with a gun crime who’s being sent to a diversionary program.”

The bill will allow minors who made a mistake to move on with their life, assuming they finish whatever programs are asked of them in the process, said Perry.

“But I think it’s important that if they complete what we ask them to do, that their records for the next five years or more don’t follow them,” he said.  “And there’ll be certain exceptions that law enforcement under certain situations has access to these records, but for the general public, it would not be accessible,” he said.

On SB 474 Recreational Off-highway Vehicles (Currently on the Committee agenda—Transportation)

Marion County is home to the Ocala National Forest (ONF), which offers numerous outdoor recreational activities, including all-terrain vehicle (ATV) riding trails.

Perry said specifications have changed on the vehicles with the advent of newer technology, and legislation should address those changes to allow the newer vehicles to operate in the ONF alongside older models.

“The new all-terrain vehicles, the newest ones that they’re proposing, which are all electric, weigh more than the other ones,” he said. “And so, it’s important that we extend the weight of the ATVs that are allowed on these trails.

“By extending them it will allow electric [ATVs on the trails], and I think that most people will appreciate knowing that we can have a quiet electric ATV versus the really noisy gas-powered ones,” said Perry.

However, Perry doesn’t expect the legislation to completely phase out older-style ATVs.

CS/SB 468: Insurance (Currently on the Committee agenda– Judiciary)

 Perry said he coordinates with multiple state-level offices such as Florida’s Office of Insurance Regulation (which is located within Florida’s Department of Financial Services) and others, along with Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, as they look to update any areas that might need modernizing.

Specific to CS/SB 468, Perry said, “It’s more technical stuff than anything else. It just has a lot of revisions, whether it’s being able to do things electronically that are prohibited now through Florida Statutes.”

“There’s quite a few other things like that in there, this is kind of a cleanup bill that makes the insurance agents and customers, it makes it easier, friendlier, and cheaper for customers to access and use,” he said.

On SB 500: Back-to-school Sales Tax Holiday (Currently in Finance and Tax)

Something Florida’s parents have come to appreciate is the yearly break they get from the state sales tax when purchasing school supplies for their children.  Perry said this recurring timeframe is a small part of larger legislation.

“So we have the back to school sales tax holiday that we do every single year,” he said.  “And what we do is we introduce this bill, and it will get wrapped up into a bigger tax bill later.”

“But it’s important that we get the ball started and we do that every time,” said Perry. “So this is just that window. Right now we have it as a 10-day window for a back-to-school tax holiday for families going back and getting their kids supplies and so forth.”

SB 638: Early Childhood Music Education Incentive Pilot Program (Currently in Appropriations)

Perry pointed to SB 638 as an example of an issue that sits high up on his list of priorities.  The bill continues a pilot program he proposed aimed at determining what effect music has on a child’s educational and social development.

He said the program designed for kindergarten, first, and second graders caught the governor’s eye, and Perry appreciates the support.

“One of my biggest priorities and biggest policy issues is early childhood music education,” he said. “I’m really thankful that Governor DeSantis has taken an interest in it.  He made sure that it wasn’t vetoed and that the funding was there.”

Perry said previous data shows music is one way to help potentially bridge the gap between students who have higher base levels of subjects like reading and math with those who have lower ones, and this program can help increase the understanding of the topic.

He said the program has dual funding foci and is being coordinated by the University of Florida to help students around the state.

“One funding part goes to the school districts; It’s an opt-in program, so if the school district wants to opt in, then we give them extra money, per-child funding, and then they can implement this music program,” said Perry.

“The second part of the funding goes to a study that the University of Florida is conducting,” he said.  “And it’s both a qualitative and quantitative study, I think we’ve got about 1,800 kids that are enrolled now in this program.”

The pandemic disrupted the study, he said, which compared students enrolled in the program with those who aren’t.

SB638 is a mechanism to keep the program going.

“That’s been my number one priority for several years, we finally got it passed and funded,” Perry said. “And then we had COVID and it kind of messed up the program a little bit. So now we’re extending that program. And we’ll go back to the legislature and ask for another year extension on this session.”

On getting all sides of an issue before deciding how to proceed

 Before he decides to create, amend, support, or oppose any legislation, especially if it concerns an area he might not be overly familiar with, Perry said he must first consult those who have extensive knowledge of a subject matter in order to get all sides of an issue.

“I really have to get experts, and I really have to get experts on every side,” he said. “I cannot just take what one interest group wants and think, ‘Okay, well, you know, maybe what they want is good for the consumer, maybe not’.“

Perry understands that any decisions he and his fellow lawmakers come to will reverberate around the state.

“And it’s not only what are the intended consequences, but what are the unintended consequences,” he said. “One thing [about being a legislator is] that if you make decisions for yourself, your family, or your business, and they’re the wrong decisions, you reap the consequences.  But when politicians make wrong decisions, the public reaps the consequences.”

On legislation that has strong views on both sides of an issue (such as SB 594: Discrimination on the Basis of COVID-19 Vaccination or Postinfection Recovery Status which has been referred to Community Affairs; Commerce and Tourism; Rules)

 Perry understands that not everyone will be happy with everything he proposes or supports, but that just comes with the territory of being a decision-maker.  He attempts to get as many sides to an issue as possible before making a decision.

“I would have never been elected if I only reached out to one group,” he said.  “So, I’ve had the opportunity to really look at and meet with a variety of different constituents.  I absolutely think it’s imperative, and I try, as hard as it is, to try not to make biased and preconceived decisions.”

Specifically to SB 594, Perry said, “For that, I listened to different groups and then tried to make the best decision that I think is for the constituents as a whole.”

On SB 592: Face Covering Mandates  (Referred to Judiciary; Education; Rules)

Perry said that while he often hears “why don’t you just do this or that” from others, he tries to stick to a process of examining all sides before acting, and SB 592 is no different.

“Now you just had the former CDC director come out and say those [facial coverings] don’t work,” he said. “But, you know, I try to make those decisions not based on personal [feelings]…And then I try to, every single decision I make, try to look at it and do research on it before I make a decision.”

On the Proposed Northern Turnpike Extension

Perry, like all others in the Marion County Legislative Delegation, has an eye on the proposed Northern Turnpike Extension.  He said updates are sorely needed.

“I am 100% for the MCORES; for the expansion,” Perry said.

“I think it is absolutely critical that we look at infrastructure, and how we’re going to solve some of what I think are crisis problems in our state,” he said. “The last major expansion road expansion in the state of Florida was the turnpike 50-some years ago.”

Perry said the current state of I-75 and the turnpike often cause delays, and even more than that, highlight safety issues.  Because of this, he is in favor of exploring other options in order to alleviate some of the existing traffic issues.

“The interstate from Wildwood to Gainesville, on any given day, can be a nightmare,” he said.  “We can’t have people heading to Orlando to catch a plane and miss their flight, or a business that can’t deliver goods on time, or it’s just unsafe as well. Because the more you increase traffic, you then get into safety concerns.”

He understands the apprehensions surrounding the proposed road and says the procedures set in place to determine a new road should help alleviate some of them.

“There’s a pretty good-sized process to make sure we take care of all the environmental concerns and other concerns that are out there. I absolutely think this is one of the best steps we can take,” Perry said.