Pinellas delegation puts finger on pulse of constituents as legislative session approaches

At far left, state Sen. Darryl Rouson praises Kristin Ryan, director of behavioral health services for Personal Enrichment through Mental Health Services, after she made the case for continued state funding on Sept. 9. With Rouson at the head table were Rep. Traci Koster, Sen. Jeff Brandes, Sen. Ed Hooper and Rep. Nick DiCeglie.

SEMINOLE — With state lawmakers heading to Tallahassee next week for pre-session committee hearings, local activists got one last chance for a face-to-face pitch on issues near to their hearts or for the dollars needed to advance them.

The Pinellas County Legislative Delegation invited constituents to St. Petersburg College’s Seminole campus Sept. 9 to plead with, inform, update, or — in a growing number of cases — to heckle and berate their state senators and representatives over their pet causes.

The stalwarts of such gatherings are typically local social service providers that have received funding from the state and make their case for another allocation.

That is what brought Kristin Ryan, director of behavioral health services for Personal Enrichment through Mental Health Services, or PEMHS, to SPC’s Digitorium.

“We are the only crisis stabilization unit in Pinellas County,” she told lawmakers. “We’re asking for the continued funding of $750,000. … This continued funding is so important to our county.”

PEMHS is the designated public receiving facility for Pinellas, and no person eligible for services under Florida’s Baker Act is denied service.

Ryan was one of the few presenters to receive a tip of the cap from the dais — a strong indication of where lawmakers may stand come budget-writing time.

“This is September, it’s National Recovery Month, and mental health services have become increasingly important with the pandemic, exposing the challenges that we are all facing,” said state Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from St. Petersburg. “I just want to thank you very much for the work that you do.”

After her presentation, Ryan pointed out that the state’s allocation to PEMHS is not recurring funding — meaning she’s back year after year to plead for the money. “It’s very important for us to continue that funding. Each year we do it to make sure we secure that for our program.”

Dozens of representatives of other providers made pitches to the panel: The Pace Center for Girls, Healthy Start Coalition of Pinellas, Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, Eckerd Connects.

Some attended to air concerns they felt weren’t getting enough attention in Tallahassee — the hazards of single-use plastic bags, the unattended tethering of dogs, inmate conditions and excessive mandatory sentencing. Supporters of the arts were also well-represented.

Bruce MacFadden, a paleontologist and distinguished professor at the University of Florida, was there to talk up his “Scientist in Every Florida School” program.

“My asks for today are that you help disseminate information about this program to your school district decisionmakers and teachers, that you inform your colleagues in the Legislature about this program, and you help us get legislative support to sustain and expand the ‘Scientist in Every Florida School’ program into the future,” he said.

The grassroots nature of the Seminole event contrasted with expectations that once again, the 2022 Florida legislative session is on a path to serve as a platform for the nation’s culture wars. Lawmakers are expected to push a restrictive abortion bill similar to the controversial Texas measure, and some are demanding a special session prior to the official Jan. 11-March 11 session to dismantle mask mandates.

Two of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ top priorities in the 2021 session, an “anti-riot” bill and a ban on mask mandates, have already been thrown out by judges, although appeals are certain.

Indeed, the three-hour event in Seminole came to be dominated by vaccine deniers, those opposing face mask mandates, and several people arguing that the 2020 election was fraudulent. The respectful nature of the meeting descended into more of a partisan rally, but delegation chairman Nick DiCeglie, a Republican from Indian Rocks Beach, maintained order.

“The delegation meeting is an opportunity for our constituents from all over Pinellas County to come and express their concerns with us, whether that be on public policy or a request for an appropriation,” DiCeglie said after the meeting. “It’s very important for me, for us, to have that transparency and give the folks on opportunity to express their opinions and viewpoints.

“I wanted every voice to be heard,” DeCeglie said. “It’s irrelevant what my opinion is of those concerns, it’s just important for me to make sure that they have this forum. This is the beauty of our country, we have that First Amendment right, and they certainly expressed that here today.”

The Pinellas delegation did have some official business on the agenda as well. It approved the topic of what is known as a “local bill,” legislation that usually addresses a hyperlocal matter but must go through the full Legislature. Such bills are submitted by delegations as a whole and rarely face opposition from fellow legislators.

This year’s local bill extends a state statute that makes it difficult to annex land in the East Lake Tarpon community to 2032. It was slated to expire in 2022.

The delegation also appointed Sen. Ed Hooper, a Republican from Clearwater, its next chairman, and Linda Chaney, a Republican from St. Pete Beach, its vice chair.