October 7, 2017
Bright Futures is Sen. Joe Negron's Top Priority for 2018 Legislative Session
By Ali Schmitz
In Joe Negron's first year as Florida Senate president, the Stuart lawmaker won a losing battle for a $1.6 billion reservoir to curb Lake Okeechobee discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
In his second — and last — year as senate president, Negron aims to boost state university scholarships and cement the funding into state law, he told TCPalm Friday.
A graduate of Stetson, Emory and Harvard universities, Negron said he wants to make sure any student who’s accepted to the Florida university of their choice can afford to attend. The Republican's aim isn't free education for all, just financial aid for the needy.
“What I don’t want to happen is that a student would be admitted to Florida Atlantic University or the University of Central Florida and they would have to sit down with their parents at the kitchen table and say, ‘I’ve been admitted, I’m qualified and I can get a degree. But we can’t financially make it work, even when we’re all pitching in in good faith,’" said Negron, whose daughter attended the University of Florida. “I want everybody to have the opportunity to pursue their educational goals.”
Lawmakers last year committed over $300 million so top-tier Bright Futures awards included 100 percent of tuition and a $300 book stipend each semester. But it was temporary, for this year only.
Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill that would have secured that funding level permanently. Scott said he believed such a law would hinder progress at Florida’s 28 state colleges, formerly called "community colleges."
Negron wants Florida's public universities to improve the quality of their education so they can rise in national rankings and become renowned destinations. It’s about more than just bragging rights, he said.
“It has a tangible, measurable effect on job placement and students getting into law schools, business schools and medical schools across the country,” said Negron, an attorney at the Akerman firm since resigning from Gunster to dispel any conflict of interest.
His exclusive interview with TCPalm was his first to reveal some of his 2018 legislative priorities. He’ll speak with other media this week and the Martin County Taxpayers Association Oct. 16, along with Treasure Coast Reps. Gayle Harrell and MaryLynn Magar.
The January-to-March session starts earlier in 2018 because it’s an even-numbered year, in other words an election year when candidates are busy with spring campaigns.
Lake Okeechobee reservoir
Whatever Negron accomplishes this session, his legacy for many will be the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir Project.
The reservoir will store between 78.2 million and 120 billion gallons of excess lake water, instead of sending it east to Stuart and west to Fort Myers. That will help curb toxic algae blooms like the 2016 plague in the St. Lucie River, Indian River Lagoon and — for the first time ever — beaches in Martin and St. Lucie counties.
In the summer of 2016, discharges from Lake Okeechobee caused widespread toxic algae blooms in the St. Lucie River.
Negron summoned his best negotiating skills and horsetraded with Speaker Richard Corcoran to get the Legislature to approve the reservoir — unanimously in the Senate, but 99-19 in the House. The governor’s signature made it law May 9, 2017.
The state and Army Corps of Engineers each will pay about $800 million — maybe more— for the nearly 15,000-acre deepwater reservoir southeast of Lake Okeechobee.
“My niche in the legislative process is writing down policy and budget objectives and then working to implement them in the process so something measurable is accomplished,” Negron said. “I tell people I make up with attention to detail what I lack in charisma.”
Negron said he’s overseeing the reservoir's design and execution by the South Florida Water Management District and Department of Environmental Protection to make sure the project is completed effectively.
“Any project of this magnitude, going from being a law to being a functioning reservoir, needs legislative oversight,” Negron said.
But without community involvement, the project wouldn't have become reality.
"The fact that this community was so supportive in every way, asking what they could do to help and how they could be part of it — the rallies, the coming to Tallahassee, the letters, the phone calls, all the things this community did,” Negron said, “it wouldn't have happened without them."
Negron is tight-lipped about his future, but conventional wisdom says he's a strong contender to win the 2018 election to replace term-limited Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Negron made a brief run at the office in 2006, but withdrew in deference to Republican Party stalwart Bill McCollum, who entered the race late.
Negron said he's not ruling out a run for higher office in 2018, but said Friday it's too early to discuss his plans. He wants to focus on his last legislative session as president, he said.
“When that’s over, I’ll sit down and evaluate the next step forward. I haven’t decided,” said Negron. A likely adviser will be wife Rebecca, a Martin County School Board member who lost a 2016 primary bid for congressional District 18.
“Being a presiding officer and working with 39 other senators is a demanding and time-consuming position, as well as a rewarding effort," Negron said. "That takes all my effort.”
Negron wants the Legislature to fully implement 2016’s Amendment 1, which funds the Florida Forever that buys, maintains and improves land and water preservation areas.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, filed a bill earlier this week to increase Florida Forever funding. Lawmakers last year allocated nothing for the fund that — before Gov. Scott and the recession — used to get $300 million annually.
Negron said the state should make strategic purchases, making sure the public has recreational access to them.
Negron said senators want to improve hurricane preparation and recovery efforts in the wake of Irma. They especially want to help farmers, who suffered $2.5 billion in losses, according to a Department of Agriculture report. Sugar alone lost $383 million.
Negron said senators will collaborate on legislation to combat Florida's opioid crisis. Addictions and overdoses killed 7,293 people in Florida in 2015, a 21 percent increase over 2014.