By Donnie Williams
TALLAHASSEE—Members of the Black Press Association of Florida conducted annual meetings with cabinet officials by reviewing the 2020 priorities of two powerful state regulators; Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. These elected officials run statewide like the Governor and US Senators, and while they are not as well-known, they wield tremendous influence. That’s because they are regulators protecting Floridians and assisting them in a wide range of public services that impact their daily lives. Both cabinet officers are White, young, driven, and passionate about getting things done. Fried is a Democrat, and Patronis is a Republican. They share a common enthusiasm for their jobs and partner up on issues where they agree. That was refreshing. Here are some of the priorities we discussed.
Fried: Fighting Food Deserts, Gun Loopholes, and the Onerous Clemency Process
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried stays busy. She says there is a lot of work to do in Florida. Among those issues is finding ways to deal with “food deserts” or food insecurity. Within months of taking office, Fried put together a pilot project in Little Haiti, providing universal breakfast to those qualifying. Lift provided transportation. Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed the $100,000 state budget appropriation. Fried did not give up, and Lift didn’t either. The program is operating without the money, which is a minimal allocation in the massive state budget. Fried will come back again this session but has moved aggressively to address Florida’s hunger problems by promoting and supporting urban farms, food trucks, and a host of volunteer initiatives.
A former public defender, Fried has taken on the cumbersome clemency process that hears pleas from convicted felons to restore their civil rights. The process is so expensive and difficult to navigate, and few undertake the effort at all. In September, the Commissioner wrote her colleagues on the clemency board, asking for a hearing to review the rules and regulations. Yet, no response.
The Agriculture Commissioner is also responsible for oversight of the background checks for concealed weapons permits. Loopholes in the law came to light when Fried’s predecessor, Adam Putnam, stopped cross-checking concealed weapon applicants on the FBI crime database for over a year. Fried wants to close other dangerous loopholes. “Right now, we cannot retain fingerprints,” Fried says. Such common-sense safeguards and the reduction of the renewal time to 5 years face resistance, however, from lawmakers and gun advocates like the National Rifle Association.
As citrus greening intensifies, Fried is working toward a “come back,” which means finding workers for the processing plants. But she is also looking to alternative crops such as industrial hemp. Hemp’s potential as an environmental asset is tremendous, according to Fried. Hemp will replace paper, plastic, and expedite processing cotton. ‘There is an open market for hemp. It will provide 20-30 billion dollars for the Florida economy,” the Commissioner said.
Patronis: Uses Power to Stop Scams and Save Lives
Jimmy Patronis was appointed, then elected as Florida’s Chief Financial Officer in 2018. He has a broad range of regulatory responsibilities over banking and finance, insurance, while also serving as the Fire Marshall and Treasurer. Fraud has been one of the biggest problems Floridians face. Patronis has made combating it a priority, dubbing the effort” Fraud Free Florida.” The CFO himself could have been a victim. He says he received a social security scam call. “If I got one, someone in the wrong frame of mind could have been ruined. This is stealing,” he said. Consumer alerts and coordination with local and state law enforcement is ongoing.
Patronis turned to the devastation of Hurricane Michael that ripped through the panhandle leveling communities. “That hurricane resulted in 148,000 insurance claims, $8 billion in damages and $60 million in downed timber debris. There are no homes left in Mexico Beach, and the tax base in Bay County has collapsed,” according to Patronis, who is working with insurance companies, FEMA and HUD to rebuild the community. The deterioration of mental health is also a significant problem; a sharp increase in Baker Act commitments resulted after the storm.
The mental health overall and cancer insurance coverage for Florida firefighters was an emotional issue for the CFO. He points with pride to the April passage of the bill that expands benefits to firefighters exposed to 21 types of cancer-causing chemicals in the line of duty. It was a major victory for firefighters who had fought for the coverage for years. For the upcoming 2020 session, plans continued focus on digital fraud and mental health issues.