The Florida Keys' representation in Tallahassee is going to change in the coming year, with no incumbents lined up for the state House or Senate seats.
Members of the Key West Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday heard from candidates for the House of Representatives, Senate and supervisor of elections positions. The political forum was a continuation of the chamber's series of candidate events.
Congressional candidates answered questions about Keys-specific issues, including windstorm insurance rates, tourism dollars, job creation and the possibility of casino gambling in Monroe County. Supervisor of elections candidates fielded questions about increasing the county's voter turnout and possible changes to the office that has been occupied by the retiring Harry Sawyer for more than two decades.
Local attorney Ed Scales moderated the lunchtime forum at the Casa Marina Resort, asking questions submitted by members of the chamber and of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.
Republican Holly Raschein and Democrat Ian Whitney are vying for District 120 seat in the Florida House currently occupied by Democrat Ron Saunders.
Scales opened the forum by asking Raschein and Whitney what legislation they would sponsor "to address Monroe County's windstorm crisis."
Raschein said she wants to "rein in the re-inspection process" for Citizens Property Insurance clients that has caused skyrocketing rates for some property owners.
She also pledged to "continue the fight of my former bosses to educate legislators" about Monroe County's unique characteristics and strict building codes and "look to the federal government" for help creating a national disaster coverage program.
Whitney said: "Ideology is getting in the way of pragmatic solutions in Tallahassee, and we need to bring Democrats and Republicans from coastal regions together." Whitney is a local political activist and president of the Key West Innkeepers Association. "Unfortunately, it may not happen until we have a new governor."
Neither candidate supports the new law requiring state employees to contribute 3 percent to their pensions -- currently hung up in courts -- and both objected to Gov. Rick Scott's rejection of the statewide high-speed rail system that forfeited federal transportation funds.
"We're talking about billions of dollars that were sent to other states," Whitney said. "Those were our federal dollars and he gave them away."
Raschein agreed the forfeiture of the funds "wasn't wise," and pointed out that a rail system would create thousands of jobs in Florida through its construction and operation.
Supervisor of elections
Talk turned from job creation to voter turnout when Scales asked supervisor of elections candidates Barry Gibson and Joyce Griffin how they would change the county office that administers elections and registers voters.
Gibson, a Republican, owns a sunglass shop in Old Town and recently served as a city commissioner.
Griffin has worked as the county's assistant supervisor of elections for the past 19 years and now wants to follow in her mentor's electoral footsteps.
Both candidates, when asked, said they supported the incumbent Sawyer's call for more early-voting days than currently allowed in most of the state in order to guarantee all voters access to the polls.
The state has mandated a new eight-day schedule in all but five Florida counties.
When asked what changes they would make within the office, Griffin said she wanted to focus on voter education and letting people know about the specifics of partisan races and voter eligibility in the primaries.
Gibson also said he would focus on increasing voter turnout and voter education.
"There should be representatives from the elections office at local events, festivals, luncheons, etc.," Gibson said, adding that he won his City Commission primary "by one vote," and thus knows the importance of voter turnout.
Griffin pointed out the disparity between 70 percent to 80 percent turnout during presidential elections and 30 percent at the recent local primaries.
"I always say, people don't realize that it's their local commissioner who can decide not to let you drive down your street or ride your bike somewhere," Griffin said, emphasizing the importance of voting by adding that she has seen, during her 28 years with the elections office, "two elections being pulled out of a hat. Is that democracy?"
Democrat Dwight Bullard and Republican Scott Hopes will face off in November for the Florida Senate seat that includes Monroe County and parts of Miami-Dade counties.
Both candidates offered a resounding "No," when asked whether they supported expanding the allowable uses of state bed tax money.
That money is generated by lodging establishments and earmarked for advertising and other tourism-specific expenditures. Some groups have proposed expanding those uses to include affordable housing or other non-tourism items.
"I think the tourism tax was created for specific purposes, and businesses, in essence, entered into a contract with the state and I will not support diverting those dollars," Hopes said.
"It would be foolish on the part of the state," he said, adding that his experience in Tallahassee has taught him about "trust fund sweeps"; when funds designated for a specific purpose were raided for other purposes. Such a move with Florida's tourism money would be "absurd," Bullard said.
Hopes said he wants to make Florida a more business-friendly state by "eliminating regulations that impeded small-business growth."
"We are victims of decades of laws being passed in Tallahassee without insight into how we really do business," he said.
Bullard, who also opposes the state employees' 3 percent pension contribution, called for further development of South Florida agri-tourism and eco-tourism industries.
Hopes said he supports the idea of drug testing for welfare recipients and listed windstorm rates, health care reform and wastewater funding as his top three priorities for Monroe County.
Bullard pledged to make the state friendlier toward small businesses and also commended Sawyer for his stance on early voting to ensure everyone the most access to the polls.