CHIPLEY — A bill championed by the Washington County Chamber of Commerce made it through both the Florida Legislature, but not without some political maneuvering, said Representative Marti Coley (R- District 5) on Thursday in Chipley.
“This was a most productive Legislative session, maybe the most productive one since I have been in the Legislature,” Coley said.
Coley was in town visiting the Chamber’s Third Thursday breakfast meeting at Northwest Florida Community Hospital. Coley is the Speaker of the House pro tempore and has served in the House since 2005. Redistricting last year resulted in the Jackson County native becoming the representative for Washington County.
“Your Chamber director brought this idea to me of expanding the Enterprise Zones to make them work better for the rural counties,” Coley said, referring to Executive Director Ted Everett. “And he said, ‘You know, this isn’t just good for Washington County. It would be good for the whole state.’”
Coley said she was excited to be able to support legislation that was not only good for her district, but that could make a difference for the entire state. “There are rural areas down in south Florida, too,” she said. “And to me, this is where it becomes exciting to be a Representative — when you meet with people and they have ideas that make a difference for not just their region, but for everybody.”
The new legislation expands Enterprise Zones for up to three miles, and will extend existing zones for up to five miles.
Everett said this change in the Enterprise Zone laws could be huge for Washington County, especially in the Ebro area. “This can be a huge game-changer for Ebro.”
He said the days of counties or cities working on their own to attract industry are over. “We have to work together, it has to be a regional effort these days to attract business,” Everett said. “For example, the mega-site project that has been in the works for Jackson County — when that happens, there could be 1,500 to 2,000 new jobs. Can you imagine what that would mean for all of us?”
Coley also said the 2013 Legislative Session was important for its concentration on education. “It was a great year for education,” she said. “Education is such an important key to having a strong economy.”
The Legislature found more money for the school districts, which Coley said should mean teachers will be receiving raises this year. The Legislature also passed legislation restructuring the educational paths for students.
She said the new legislation will provide three pathways for students to receive a standard high school diploma — a scholar track, leading to college studies, a career track that will offer professional certifications for high school graduates so they will have skills with which to gain employment after high school; and a standard track which will prepare students to have the math, science and reasoning skills needed to be employed.
“I spoke to a manager at a port in Panama City, and he told me that they had positions they were unable to fill, because the applicants could not pass a basic math and skills test required for employment,” Coley said.
Coley, a former teacher, said she gets excited when she talks about education.
“One of the great things about being in the Legislature, you deal with so many different topics, you can’t be an expert on them all. But when it comes to education, that’s my area of expertise.”
Another piece of legislation which had its genesis in the Panhandle was an agri-tourism bill, which grew out of Waterway South meetings that Coley and Everett attended a couple of years ago.
Coley said the House version of the agri-tourism bill was nearly sunk when an “interested party” convinced another representative to attach an amendment, which Coley said “gutted the bill.”
“It turned it into a ‘sounds pretty, looks pretty’ bill with no substance,” Coley said.
This was a problem because Coley had worked closely with Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam on creating the bill, and it had specific language that Putnam wanted in the bill.
However, the Senate version of the bill passed without any troublesome amendments, so the House was able to set their bill aside and adopt the unchanged Senate bill.
“The best legislation occurs when representatives listen to the people,” Coley said.