Chamber pitch highlights four priorities to state leaders
By Jaime Levy
In a year with reapportionment and budgeting decisions on the table in Tallahassee, members of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce who traveled to the Capitol last week said they are worried their issues may get lost in the brouhaha.
Still, they said, high-ranking politicos - from Miami-Dade County's legislative delegation to the governor - greeted the chamber's wishlist with a willingness to talk.
The chamber's formal legislative package highlighted four issues as top priorities:
Equitable funding for K-12 and higher education institutions.
Commitment to the Miami-Dade Empowerment Zone.
Identification of creative ways to draw federal money for social service programs.
Creation of a Regional Transportation Authority.
Of the chamber's four primary goals, the one that received the most concrete support was the empowerment zone, which members of both the House and Senate say is likely to receive a $5 million block grant.
"I'm very confident that both sides of the House will support financing for the empowerment zone, but the hurdle has to be, if we do get the appropriation approved, will the governor veto the legislation?" said Bryan Finnie, president and CEO of the Miami-Dade Empowerment Trust, who was part of the chamber's 30-person group in Tallahassee. "That's my major concern. In our discussions with the governor, he was very non-committal."
After meeting with the state's secretary of transportation, Tom Barry, members of the chamber group said they were pleased by his support of a new regional transportation authority. The question of equitable funding among the state's educational institutions, though chamber members said it was initially well-received by Commissioner of Education Charlie Crist, will be revisited in more detail during another trip to Tallahassee.
As for revenue maximization, Peter England, who heads the governmental affairs committee of the chamber's non-profit group, said government leaders took well to the notion of loosening the restrictions on what can constitute matching funds for federal money. The non-profit group is awaiting a report that will outline places where the state stands to gain significant federal money before it makes a push to change the current restrictions.
"Revenue maximization is going down pretty well. There's no reason it shouldn't because it's revenue-neutral as far as the legislature's concerned," said Mr. England, director of government and community affairs for Camillus House.
"The problem is the most obvious one. Within the legislature itself, and by extension, the governor's office, there are two overarching items that eclipse everything else: tax reform and redistricting."
Philip Blumberg, chair of the chamber's South Florida Initiative, said he was also concerned about a "logjam" between the House and Senate, caused by political disagreements about Senate President John McKay's plan to alter the state's taxation formula.
"It seems to be causing a very significant impasse on any legislation getting through right now. It's a very unfortunate and difficult situation right now," Mr. Blumberg said, adding that he was pleased with a commitment by the governor to attend South Florida Initiative's summer meeting. "Until they can find a face-saving way to salvage an agreement, I'm afraid most of the priorities around the state will become subordinate to this issue. They're so unbending on both sides that they're holding everything hostage."
But chamber chair Ramiro Ortiz said he was confident that once the state's most prominent issues are hammered out, issues like the chamber's objectives will be addressed.
"As early as we are in the legislative session, it would have been difficult for them to make definite commitments on anything," said Mr. Ortiz, president of SunTrust Bank, Miami. "I'm delighted at this stage with 'well-received.' Redistricting coupled with budget tightening - they have to get past that before anything else."
The session is to end March 22.
Mr. Ortiz said the chamber's work during this session is not yet done: More trips to Tallahassee are being planned to give details on aspects of the chamber's package.