By Erika Webb
Sequestration, Obamacare, economic development, education and jobs were among the topics of discussion at the annual legislative luncheon hosted by the West Volusia Regional Chamber of Commerce in DeBary.
Four legislative panelists including Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange; Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona; Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D- Daytona Beach; and Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, addressed questions on the minds of local and county officials, residents and business people as legislators prepared for the 2013 Legislative Session in Tallahassee.
"Sequestration is the only word in Washington right now," said John Booker, district representative of U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park.
While 63 percent of Americans had an understanding of "what the fiscal cliff drama was all about," only 18 percent comprehend sequestration -- the process that automatically cuts the federal budget across most departments and agencies -- "which will have more impact on the economy than the fiscal cliff," he said.
As to the question of a balanced state budget, Sen. Hukill called it "incredibly important, important enough to be included in the Constitution."
"One thing we have to do is adopt a budget, a balanced budget. The voters did that in their wisdom," Sen. Hukill said. "We have to do what families do."
She said she doesn't consider Florida to be in crisis at this point.
"I don't want to jinx it, but it looks like we won't be down," she said. "But we won't be flush."
Rep. Santiago said he is finding life in the Capitol to be "fast and furious."
"I'm a freshman up there (where there's) all this knowledge. There's a lot of information and the issues are broad. I had no idea I'd be dealing with issues so broad -- from medical to education to finance," Rep. Santiago said.
Vowing to stick with campaign promises to create jobs and training, he said it's becoming more lucrative to bring manufacturing jobs that "went away years ago" back to the U.S.
"We need to bring those jobs back to Volusia County," he said. "We need to get the work force ready to work."
Suggesting a joint effort for training with Daytona State College, Rep. Santiago said, "We're ready to bring your jobs here. That's key going forward five, 10, 20 years."
And he pledged his support to "get rid of" the onerous cell phone tax.
"As a consumer myself I get angry every month at three bills -- cable, cell phone and Internet," he said. "What greater sign can we send than to say we're going to get rid of it and make it more transparent?"
Sen. Hukill, the chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Finance and Tax, called tax and finance the "hot spot issues," the ones "everyone loves to love and loves to hate."
She said it's time to examine bills containing incentive packages for businesses to determine whether or not they're working and how they can be tweaked.
Primarily, the manufacturing bill.
Early in February, Sen. Hukill filed Senate Bill 518, which eliminates the sales tax on the purchase of manufacturing equipment.
"We need homegrown Florida manufacturers," Sen. Hukill said. "In many other states you wouldn't pay sales tax on heavy equipment. Where's the incentive to come to Florida?"
Though southwest Volusia County makes up only 10 percent of Sen. Simmons' district, he called it, "not a big part, but an incredibly important part of my district," and said he wants more tax dollars allocated for schools here.
"You won't get business in Volusia County unless you have top-notch education in (grades) K through 12," he said.
The senator honed in on the district cost differential, or DCD, the portion of tax revenues school districts receive back from the state. Volusia was hit the hardest of any county after the 2004 funding formula change shaved $97 million from the school district's projected return. A lower median income here than in other counties has been to blame.
The DCD formula is based on wages and costs of goods and services in each school district.
"In Dade County $1 equals $1.03 back," Sen. Simmons said. "Here $1 equals 97 cents back."
When Volusia voters said no to a proposed 1-mill property tax increase in the last election, it was yet another blow to the county's schools.
"We are going to push very, very hard to increase overall education funding," Sen. Simmons said. "But we're also asking for a DCD supplement for Volusia County."
However, he said, he doesn't believe it will be possible to change the DCD this spring.
"First you gotta study. We don't have a study," he said.
West Volusia Regional Chamber of Commerce director and secretary Laura Engstrom said 75 people attended the luncheon and feedback was very positive.
"What I really liked is that everyone came away with what they feel like was substantial information," Ms. Engstrom said.
Questions were gathered from chamber members, community leaders and the business community. Content was chosen from that input and given to the speakers in advance to give them time to formulate their answers, saving time and allowing for substantive responses, she said.
Volusia County School Superintendent, Margaret Smith; Deltona Mayor, John Masiarczyk; Orange City Mayor, Tom Laputka; and DeBary Mayor, Bob Garcia all were in attendance.
"This is a good way of city, local representatives and leaders to get good insight into what legislators are planning and doing," Mayor Garcia said. "It's good for an exchange of ideas between leaders and the business community, especially with SunRail coming in."
He commended the chamber.
"This is a good example of what the chamber is doing, (playing) a leadership role in the community," Mayor Garcia said. "I'm so proud of them."