Guest speaker at the Hamilton County Chamber of Commerce Annual Appreciation Dinner on Thursday, Oct. 17, was Florida State Senator William (Bill) J. Montford III (D-Tallahassee). Montford was first elected to the Florida Senate in 2010 and then re-elected in 2012. He serves on various committees in the Florida Senate for agriculture, education, gaming, and banking and finance, just to name a few. He represents 11 counties; Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Hamilton, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Taylor and Wakulla counties. Hamilton County was added to his district after last year's re-districting process was completed.
“I love Hamilton County,” Montford told the crowd. “I haven't spent a lot of time here, but I'm from Blountstown and that should tell you we gotta be kin somewhere,” he added, which drew laughter from all in attendance.
Montford has an extensive background in education, which he said he was very proud of, and so he started off with several humorous and hilarious anecdotes about his life as an educator. He prefaced by saying he was one of those politicians whose true stories were actually true.
“The best job I've ever had, other than being a granddaddy, was being a high school principal,” said Montford. “It will kill you, but there's not a better job,” he added.
Another story he told was about a lie detector rug that he had in his office when dealing with unruly students, which had everyone in stitches.
“I tried that in the Senate, but it doesn't work,” he said, laughing. “They've got my number.”
Montford spoke at length on issues regarding Common Core, which he said, has been in place for two years already. He also said there have been 34 changes to the school grading formula in the last two years, which he said has confused everyone, including himself.
As for education curriculum, the lack of physical education graduation requirements over the years, he said, has been a contributing factor to the unhealthiness of many of today's youth with so many of them being overweight and out of shape. Another issue he addressed was that not all students are cut out for college and there needs to be more vocational training for those students.
“Some of the smartest, brightest, most successful students I've ever had never went to college,” he said. “I have three of my former students in Tallahassee who own their own plumbing company. Now, you tell me who makes some money...and they won't give me a break,” he added, laughing.
A student today who graduates from high school according to Common Core standards, he said, can go to work, go to college or both.
A misconception about Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), he said, is that Florida did not withdraw from it, but just withdrew as fiscal agent for the program. The program, he said, has some problems and the state has been diligently working to get them ironed out. He also said he doesn't believe the federal government should be telling individual states and counties how to educate students.
A progressive and comprehensive plan needs to be put in place to address water issues in the state of Florida, Montford said. One problem, he explained, is the salinity of the water in Apalachicola River where sharks have been spotted and clams are being endangered, which has been caused by a lack of water coming down into the Apalachicola River basin from Georgia.
“We've been in legal action with the state of Georgia for 25 years,” said Montford. “The governor is trying a new approach. He's going straight to the supreme court now.”
The problem is that it could take four or five years to resolve, he said.
“I promise you, if we don't get some relief, the bay in Apalachicola will die,” said Montford.
Another water issue is the Indian River Lagoon, which, when the water rises in Lake Okeechobee, it overflows and travels through canals going east and west across the state. The water, he said, is exceptionally polluted from all the water that has filtered south from Orlando.
“It's killing the sea grass, it's killing the fish and other animals,” he said. “We're moving rapidly to try and address that issue by repairing the dike on the south side of Lake Okeechobee, and by doing something short term to try and clean the water that's coming down from Orlando. It's going to be a long process, but there's hope there. We don't have a lot of hope in the Apalachicola River Basin.”
For North Florida, Montford said progress is being made between the St. John's and Suwannee River Management Districts to tackle regional water issues.
“We're doing a better job, but we've got to have a statewide comprehensive approach to water issues,” said Montford. “I can promise you that if Central and South Florida continue to grow at the rate they're going, sooner or later they're going to look at North Florida for water.”
Montford explained how Citizen's Insurance came about and how it has gotten out of control as to surcharges being imposed. It was set up by the state to help mainly coastal homeowners who couldn't get insurance from other carriers. It was designed to handle only about 300,000-400,000 policies. There are about 1.2 million clients who have this insurance today.
“About 300,000 of those policy holders don't even live in Florida,” he said. “Of that 300,000, 30,000 of them live in a foreign country.”
Only two percent of his constituents, Montford said, have Citizen's Insurance. There is a surcharge on Florida residents' homeowners' insurance policies to offset the growing costs of Citizen's Insurance, he explained. He said Citizen's is a good thing for people who need it, but North Florida residents shouldn't be paying the same surcharge amount as those farther south in the state.
“We're looking at trying to do something to make it fair,” he said.
A select Senate committee has been holding public hearings on gaming throughout the state, Montford said. The issue is that Destination Casinos was introduced by foreign investors who were primarily looking at South and Central Florida to build casinos that would draw people from all over the world.
“We knew how serious it was when Las Vegas started hiring up all the lobbyists in Tallahassee to fight it, because the goal was to take business away from Las Vegas,” said Montford.
Another issue is that Florida has a Seminole Indian compact that takes in $250 million each year.
“They have exclusive rights over the counties and they own all the Hard Rock Hotels, so it's a real big money issue,” he said.
Right now the Senate committee is in an information gathering process. Interests in Central Florida, Montford said, are concerned these Destination Casinos will take away business and change Florida from family-oriented vacation destinations, such as Disney and Busch Gardens, to something less desirable.