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Rep. Williamson Previews Session, 'Tough Decisions'

Courtesy Florida House of Representatives

Florida’s 2021 Legislative Session gets underway in a couple of weeks. In the run up to the start of the session on March 2, lawmakers have been in Tallahassee attending committee meetings. WUWF recently checked in with District 3 Representative Jayer Williamson of Pace to talk about the tough work ahead.

“There’re a lot of impacts we’ve had from coronavirus, where revenues are down,” said Williamson, projecting a budget shortfall of about $2.8 billion in this budget year, and possibly a shortfall of up to $1.8 billion next fiscal year.

“So, the decisions we’re going to have to make over the next couple of months are going to be some tough decisions. So, we’re going to have to probably make some cuts.”

Luckily, says Williamson, committee assignments for his third term in office will allow him to continue to be in the budget loop. His seven appointments include the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, Appropriations Committee, and Infrastructure and Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee, which he chairs.

“So, my budget silo is a “pretty big” one for the state of Florida,” he declared. "We cover the transportation, economic development and tourism areas. So we have the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, Department of Military Affairs, State, Emergency Management, Transportation; a lot of really good areas that are important to people across the state of Florida. It’s a $14 billion impact.”

But, with revenues down by more than $2 billion, primarily due to the economic impact of the pandemic, Williamson is in concert with other members of the local legislative delegation in advising organizations seeking funding this year to rein in their expectations.

“I’m not trying to be doom and gloom, but I’m just being honest and realistic with the people that the money’s got to come from somewhere,” he cautioned. “Is it going to come from education, healthcare, roads, from tourist development, from our economic development or beach renourishment?”

COVID-19 is projected to be the overriding issue of much of the legislation to be considered during the session. Some measures address specific coronavirus issues, such as the anti-pandemic fraud bill HB 9.

“There’re always going to be bad actors that abuse any kind of situation to take advantage of people and we don’t want that to happen,” said Williamson, pointing also to HB 7. “That was the Civil Liability for Damages bill and that’s to protect our businesses and business across the state - from frivolous lawsuits.”

In addition to COVID, the past year was marked by civil and political unrest, culminating in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.  In Florida, Republican leaders have introduced – and Williamson plans to support - legislation aimed at cracking down on violent protests.

“When you start destroying vehicles and structures. That is not peacefully protesting. That is rioting and we’re not going to have that in the state of Florida,” he said.

In reference to calls for police reforms in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, Williamson acknowledges the conservative majority in his district, which includes most of Santa Rosa County and the northern portion of Okaloosa. On the other hand...

“I represent all the people in my district and will listen to them and will definitely be open.”

In the weeks leading up to the opening of the session, Williamson has been busy filing legislation. One such measure is HB 259 involving Safety of Religious Institutions. Williamson says the bill fixes a glitch in current state law that allows permit holders to carry concealed weapons in a church.

“If a church sits on the same location as a school or a pre-k sits, you’re breaking the law if you carry a concealed weapon into that church that sits on the same campus as a school,” he explained. “It’s just a little glitch bill to fix that. It does not supersede any private property rights.”

Other local bills include HB 3639, which seeks an appropriation for planning and design of a new District 1 Medical Examiners Facility; HB 3623 to provide funding for a master plan for Bray-Hendricks Park in Jay; and HB 3631 to fund the Choctawhatchee Bay Estuary Program.

Additionally, Williamson is sponsoring a policy bill to create a special fire district in Navarre, following residents’ 70% approval of a 2020 referendum.

“What that’ll do is that will allow all the money generated on Navarre Beach through the millage rate for their fire district, it’ll just stay on Navarre Beach,” Williamson said. “All that money will go straight to the firemen and fire department on Navarre Beach and it’ll be spent how they see fit.”

If the fire district measure passes the legislature, another local referendum will be required, but no state funding is necessary. For those items that need appropriations, Dist. 3 Rep. Williamson said lawmakers will do their best to meet the challenge.

“Everybody’s not going to be happy with us with the budget,” he noted. “But, we’re going to make sure that Florida has a sound budget and that our state overall is taken care of.”

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.