Florida Legislative Committee Weeks Conclude: What’s Not Being Discussed

After seven weeks of Florida’s legislative committee weeks, it can be said that much of what wasn’t presented by state agency heads who appeared on most agendas is more significant to Florida’s everyday children and families than what was.

With the number of new faces in the Florida legislature due to term limits and redistricting, it was understandable for agency heads to focus on explaining the function and status of their departments.  But having listened to the presentations, American Children’s Campaign believes it is fair to say the overall condition and vulnerability of everyday Florida kids and families did not receive enough attention nor did the continuing crisis for working parents finding quality and affordable child care.

The presentations could have also included, but didn’t, an explanation to Florida legislators on the negative impacts federal policy changes will have on Florida families – with the end of the pre-tax Earned Income Tax Credit and the termination of pandemic related SNAP (food stamps) increases just to name a few. Hundreds of thousands of Florida’s children, and millions nationwide, are being tossed back into poverty and at a time when more families are facing hardships as serious as losing the roof over their heads and food on the table. What is Florida’s response?

Regardless, the latest happenings during Florida committee weeks generated massive news coverage spanning local, statewide and national television commentary and newspapers.

A special session was carved out of the committee weeks also.  Dominating legislators attention were topics such as granting more authority to the statewide prosecutor to pursue alleged election fraud spanning multiple judicial circuits, transporting of undocumented  immigrants to more northern parts of the country, and a new oversight board and governance structure aimed mainly at Disney-owned properties.  This was followed by actions mostly impacting higher education, DEI, and a focus on K-12 library materials.

Top Unmet Needs

When education debates take center stage, what is generally overlooked is the 16 hours of a day when children are not in school and how lived experiences during those hours impact school performance and children’s futures.

Exceptions included some limited but frank discussion of the Baker Act’s use on children, a task force to examine out-of-home placements in the child welfare system, and the continuing mental health and substance abuse crisis.  Noticeably overlooked, however, was the enormous implications for the seven county sheriff’s departments that handle child abuse investigations to return those responsibilities to the state.  Regardless of the merits or not, depending on who is being asked, the appropriate legislative committees did not appear to be publicly informed and engaged in the policy discussion.  News reports mainly in the Tampa Bay area stated “no specific time frame” has been set and the transfer is “fluid”.  These are not reassuring descriptions and statements that CPI investigators will “simply transfer” back to DCF have not been validated to our knowledge by confidential surveys.

Also during this time, American Children’s Campaign and Floridians for Dental Access jointly announced the formation of a stronger coalition to raise awareness and the visibility of an untreated oral health crisis that is growing in size no matter which metric is used as a measuring stick.  The #1 unmet health need worldwide is dental care and Floridians are paying a high price financially, emotionally and physically for an oral health system that is failing them.

Also lurking in the shadows and waiting for an opening is the pervasive and growing anxiety of human services leaders and managers about workforce shortages within their organizations.

Huge Workforce Stability and Quality Issues Persist

As reported to American Children’s Campaign, workforce stability and quality continues to be a huge concern.  Unfilled positions and turnover are increasing and some positions, such as clinicians, are especially difficult to fill due to competition with the private sector and schools with more money in their pockets to recruit experienced mental health professionals.

Regarding the latter point, this, unfortunately, does not immediately translate into increased mental health services being provided.  Some community agencies explain that their clinical staff leave for better paying and better work hours in the schools only to refer more students to the community mental health centers they just left.  This dilemma requires an in-depth review regarding the coordination of mental health dollars between school and community.  Without it, citizens and concerned parents and family members shouldn’t be surprised by any lack of progress in providing substantive mental health and behavioral services in the months and years ahead.

In addition, while the state quickly came to an agreement with the union-representing public sector employees, resulting in a pay increase among other improvements, non-profits worry more of their community-based workforce will leave for those public sector positions.  There exists an historical basis for their concern.  Not long ago, non-profits serving a range of needs lost employees when the state guaranteed an increase in the hourly minimum wage ahead of schedule and the non-profits could not match it.

Tax Relief a Good Start

Factored into the workforce equation is the unbridled spike in housing costs, including rents, cost of groceries where it seems the cheapest item on any shelf is about double what it used to be, higher loan interest rates and punishing Florida insurance premiums.  Although Governor DeSantis’ proposed $1.1 billion in tax relief through tax holidays and household goods exemptions is a good start, more relief and better pay are also needed. Human service workers look at the reality staring them in the face and make decisions based on the needs of their families.  Leaving behind their passion to help  others becomes a choice when no other choice is possible.

The bottom line regarding workforce:  without enough qualified and experienced employees, caseloads will become more crowded, burnout will occur more rapidly, and quality of services will become a more complex goal to achieve than already exists.

The great question today is which political leaders will take action on these and other statewide issues vital to everyday Florida families. We urge attention to these very real needs of children, the coordination of services to meet them, and the workforce able to do it.