Southwest Florida lawmakers arrive in Tallahassee with water on the brain

Southwest Florida lawmakers tour Little Hickory Bay in January 2019.

After a year when rivers turned green, and coasts turned red, Southwest Florida lawmakers share a singular focus: water quality.

“We all need water,” said state Rep. Dane Eagle, a Cape Coral Republican.

A summer of blue-green algae coating the Caloosahatchee coinciding with a red tide outbreak on beaches only showcased the issue. Eagle said the region’s economic vitality and quality of life all rest on clean water, and no citizens in the area question that anymore.

“Regionally, even the business groups I have spoken with, they all have priorities specific to their industry,” he said.

“But they say the main thing has to be water quality. We can’t go through another season like the last one.”

State Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican, and state Rep. Michael Grant, a Port Charlotte Republican, filed legislation seeking long-term funding for a red tide institute.

The Florida Red Tide Mitigation and Technology Development Initiative will be based at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. But Gruters said it would provide a valuable service statewide.

Still, he said lawmakers along Florida’s Southwest Coast have to work together on the measure.

“This will only pass with all of us pushing at the same time,” he said.

But Gruters said the region does have a secret weapon when it comes to getting that done — Senate President Bill Galvano.

The Bradenton Republican for his part has already thumbed the scales for the effort at Mote. As chairman of the Bay Area Legislative Delegation, Galvano brought Tampa Bay lawmakers together at Mote in February. There, lawmakers unanimously endorsed the Mote project.

Michael Crosby, CEO of Mote Marine Laboratory, feels optimistic about the project heading into Session. He said it’s important for lawmakers to put some type of permanent study in place when it comes to harmful algal blooms.

He notes research grants show up aplenty after years like 2018 when one of the worst red tides in 66 years struck the state. But funding tends to evaporate in years without drastic problems.

One thing lawmakers feel good about is having an ally in the Governor’s Mansion.

It’s not just that the heavily Republican region helped DeSantis with his narrow win in November. The new Governor as he spotlights his own environmental agenda repeatedly turns to Southwest Florida as the venue for major announcements.

Two days after the inauguration, he visited Naples to tour water bodies with Southwest Florida lawmakers then announced a $2.5-billion commitment to water quality issues. He has lobbied the White House about controversial discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. And he has replaced nearly every member of the South Florida Water Management District and announced most of his picks in Naples.

State Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican, said she feels satisfied with the new members she already knows, like Chancey Goss and Charlette Roman.

But she’s most pleased to see South Florida’s water woes being treated as an issue of statewide importance.

“In the past, it’s felt like water quality was a South Florida issue,” Passidomo said. “Now it’s really being viewed as a statewide issue.”

State Rep. Margaret Good, a Sarasota Democrat and one of few Democrats representing the region in Tallahassee, likewise sees more cooperation on water.

“This isn’t just a West Coast issue,” she said. “It’s an issue for all Floridians. Water quality is at the core of who we are and our economic vitality in the future.”

But state Rep. Spencer Roach, a North Fort Myers Republican, goes to Tallahassee acutely aware budgeting dollars may be harder than promising them or professing a love for the environment.

The Governor’s budget includes $625 million for water quality.

“One of the challenges for the Legislature will be finding the money to support that request,” Roach said.

Hopefully, that leads to players around the state working together on the issue and not getting overly parochial, lawmakers said.

Passidomo wants scientists at Florida Gulf Coast University, who have focused research efforts on blue-green algae, working together with Mote scientists.

Heading into Session, Passidomo also remains focused on long-term efforts like the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. She also wants serious attention put on septic-to-sewer conversions.

“We need to expedite completion of projects in the works since 2000,” Passidomo said.

But Southwest Florida’s infrastructural needs don’t stop at the water’s edge.

Galvano has made clear he will prioritize efforts to create a limited access highway stretching from Polk to Collier counties. He said that will provide significant economic stimulus and vitality to rural and oft-ignored parts of Florida.

He knows plans for a highway through small communities will be controversial.

“Naturally, there will be an increase in density,” he acknowledges. “But one of the concerns I have had in these communities is they are subject to an exodus. It’s not a question of preserving the way of life. That way of life is already leaving.”

Notably, Galvano has avoided calling the new push a resurrection of the Heartland Parkway.

But Passidomo has fought for plans to bring that road plan back to life for years, and she’s excited by the Senate president’s interest.

“It has made a lot of sense for me,” she said. She talks regularly of helping Florida’s heartland with the road, whatever name sticks.

First and foremost, the highway will provide an additional hurricane evacuation route.

Eagle, who recalls taking to the highways as populations fled Hurricane Irma in 2017, said he knows well the need for more north-south highways in Florida.

“During Session, I get to deal with it every week when I drive to Tallahassee,” he said.

Passidomo said the roadway will also be important for the agriculture that still exists in places like Hendry County. Citrus growers need ways to ship product.

Similarly, Hendry leaders have pushed to expand Airglades Airport, which could revolutionize the way fruit gets transported from Southwest Florida’s rural inland counties.

Michael Swindle, a Hendry County Commissioner, said transportation infrastructure will be vitally important as communities like Clewiston prepare for rural development and a changing economy.

“We have an enormous amount of land suitable for development,” Swindle recently told the Real Estate Investment Society in Fort Myers.

With no impact fees and low land prices, development interests have taken a keener interest in those communities located less than an hour from mid-sized cities, including Fort Myers and Naples.

Passidomo remains confident the region can maintain a rural character while also enjoying an economic revitalization with the help of better infrastructure.

Roach sees other needs for the region and noted Lehigh Acres remains severely underserved as far as fire service.

“Lehigh is particularly vulnerable with wildfires,” he said. Beyond just public safety, that leads to insurance issues and prevents commercial development from going into a community of close to 100,000 residents.

Roach likes to note his Southwest Florida district remains the only one in all of Florida with no incorporated cities. Residents depend more on state and county government as a result.

But if Southwest Florida enjoys one thing over other areas this year, it may be the abundance of lawmakers in leadership positions.

Besides having Galvano in the President’s office, Passidomo and Eagle serve respectively as Majority Leaders for the Senate and House. State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a former Majority Leader herself.

Other veteran lawmakers like state Reps. Ray Rodrigues and Heather Fitzenhagen have held significant leadership roles in the past. Those two this year head up health and business committees.

And even newer officials like Gruters, also chairman for the Republican Party of Florida, bring political influence.

That means the regional delegation boasts more political influence than population densities on Florida’s southwestern coast might suggest.

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