Ahead of the 2021 Florida Legislative Session, local state representatives and senators held their annual Duval Legislative Delegation Meeting to hear the concerns of organizations and community stakeholders.
Many of the organizations who sent a representative shared the same concern: the implications of COVID-19 on their ability to work and receive funding.
“We were showing a 6% increase in enrollment, and within a 24-hour period we moved to about a 22% decrease as a result of COVID,” said Florida State College at Jacksonville President John Avendano.
Avendano, who was one of the first speakers at the legislative hearing, said that although the school has been taking cost-saving measures, if financial struggles continue, they’ll have to cut job positions and student programs.
“At a time when we need to be training people for the workforce through the challenging recession, we need to be able to do that with confidence that the support will be there,” Avendano said.
Reggie Fullwood, the program director for Operation New Hope, a nonprofit that helps ex-offenders get career training and find jobs, said his organization is not asking for more funding, but just to maintain the funding currently received.
“We feel like in this current climate, with COVID and all the challenges in the economy, the work that we do now is much more important than ever,” Fullwood said.
Agape Community Health Center, which helps uninsured and underserved families, has been experiencing an influx of patients who are well below the poverty line.
“Over the past few months, we have been providing COVID testing, six days a week, throughout the city,” Agape CEO Mia Jones told the delegation. “We recognize that it is critical that we are in place to provide these services because we don't turn anybody away. So today I simply want to ask you to remember that as we continue to fight the battle of COVID that you have organizations within your community that are on the front line. We will be coming back to you to ask for assistance.”
Diana Donavan, the Interim Executive Director of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, said it will be important to continue funding arts and cultural experiences, which have taken a significant hit.
“Over $235 million [in] COVID- related losses and expenses have been documented to date by the arts and culture industry with a displacement of over 22,000 jobs,” Donavan said.
While some talked about financial concerns, local doctor Nancy Staats touched on the need for local state leaders to ask for more COVID-19 safety precautions.
“Our request to you is simple and really cheap - all we're asking for [is] your immediate and strong support for a statewide mask mandate,” Staats said.
Straats told the delegation there are several misconceptions about the coronavirus to combat the idea of a statewide mask mandate, which a majority of states have already implemented in some form.
“Like you, we doctors take an oath, and like you, we're here to help our citizens,” Straats said.
Others talked about bills they hope to see pass during the next session that relate to their organization, such as representatives from the St. Johns Riverkeeper and Green Party of Duval County.
Lanelle Phillman with the League of Women Voters of Jacksonville/First Coast used her organization’s time to criticize a bill proposal from Governor Ron DeSantis aimed at combating rioting, looting and violence.
“We do not see the governor's proposed Combating Violence Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act as conducive to addressing the needs of our community, but instead, creating a more dangerous situation,” Phillman said.
In total, more than 30 organizations and community stakeholders spoke to the group of state leadership.
The following state office holders attended the meeting: Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach, some of Duval County), Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville), Rep. Cord Byrd (R- some of Nassau County and Duval County), Rep. Tracie Davis (D-Jacksonville), Rep. Wyman Duggan (R-Jacksonville), Rep. Jason Fischer (R-Jacksonville), Rep. Angie Nixon (D-Jacksonville), and Rep. Clay Yarborough (R-Jacksonville).
At the beginning of the meeting, the group was tasked with selecting a new board chair and vice chair, as Rep. Kimberly Daniels lost her seat in August to Nixon.
Yarborough was elected chair, while Byrd took the role as vice chair, but not without Gibson commenting on the lack of diversity on the board’s leadership.
“We have an opportunity to show this city that we believe and embrace diversity, not only in ethnicity and race, but also in male or female, and I would definitely hope that we would do that,” Gibson said.
aHowever, the board instead decided to go with Yarborough and Byrd.
“We have clearly made that commitment to diversity in our selection last year [with]
Representative Daniels,” Duggan said. “I don't think there's any doubt about that question.”
Sky Lebron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.