By Matt Wiley & Gary Nager
Following his first 60-day Legislative session as New Tampa’s representative in Florida’s House of Representatives, Rep. Mark Danish (D-New Tampa) is back in town, but already looking ahead to his next stint in Tallahassee.
“(The session) went very well,” says Rep. Danish, who represents all of New Tampa in District 63 in the Florida House. “I’m very pleased with how it went. There were really some good things that went on and some that weren’t as good, but I guess that’s typical of the process.”
The Benito Middle School science teacher and Arbor Greene resident says he is most proud of standing up against, and helping to defeat (by speaking on the House floor), several bills that came before the House that he did not believe would be good laws for Florida.
The first was a bill (HB 7011) that would alter the Florida Retirement System (FRS), eliminating guaranteed pension plans for state and county workers and replacing them with 401k-style investment plans. Despite our state’s fiscal woes, Danish says Florida’s state retirement plan is, “one of the most financially sound in the world. It’s rated something like fourth best in U.S.” He added that some state lawmakers wanted to change the system because similar plans have gone wrong in other states, “but that’s just not our problem here. They were basically proposing a solution that didn’t have a problem.”
Another controversial bill that Danish says he fought against, HB 867, was called the Parent Empowerment in Education bill, or “Trigger Bill.” If passed, the law would have given parents of students attending underperforming public schools the power to petition to have that school converted to a for-profit charter school.
The problem with that bill, he says, was that it would have given school districts across the state the right to convert failing schools to “private management companies,” which would then manage those schools and could keep the parents from having any firther say in how that school is operated, whether or not it would become a charter school or the type of charter school it could become.
Danish says he also was instrumental in defeating HB 743, also known as the “Fracking” bill. Fracking is a term that has been given to hydraulic fracturing, a process used to mine natural gas, which environmental groups worry would not be safe for Florida’s ecosystem.
“(The bill) kind of was going to say that Florida was open to fracking,” Danish says, in two locations — South Florida (near the Everglades) and the Panhandle. The freshman state legislator says he was instrumental in getting the House to temporarily postpone a vote on the bill because, he says, “We had already passed a bill saying that the same rock layers the oil companies wanted to use to mine the natural gas were going to be used for storage. Fifteen minutes later, we have a bill proposed to allow those same rock layers to be fractured. That seemed contradictory to me.” He added that if the bill had passed, the oil companies wouldn’t have been required to list all of the dangerous chemicals they might use in the fracking process if the chemicals could be classified as “trade secrets.”
He noted that the bill never came back up for a vote in the House after the “temporary postponement” and the Florida Senate never brought up their version of the bill for a vote, either.
“That’s what the people of this District sent me up there to do,” Danish explains. “Fight on the issues for them.”
Danish explains that starting out in the House, he hit the ground running.
“The learning curve there is very fast,” he says. “You learn very quickly that you have to learn very quickly. But, by the end, I was pretty confident.”
During the 60-day session, Danish also served on both the House Education and Economic Affairs committees, as well as the appropriations subcommittees for government operations, and agriculture and natural resources. He says he was even appointed to the judicial budget committee during the House budget conference.
“Since I hadn’t been on (the judicial committee) most of the session,” he explains. “I had to get up to speed on the judicial committee in about 24 hours. It was a late night and an early morning.”
Danish credits his day job for helping him get comfortable in Tallahassee fairly quickly. “As a teacher, I have the ability to speak in front of people, so it was a natural fit for me,” he says. “I’m used to having to get to know things quickly.”
However, one thing that Danish says that he was not ready for was the political bickering across the aisle and how it can prevent progress.
“One of the things that surprised me the most is how much is done to not get things done,” he explains. “Look at the (“Obamacare”) Medicaid expansion. So many hours were spent on that and there was so much news about it. But, you could see several weeks beforehand that the final result was that we weren’t going to accomplish anything. I thought that was really sad. I fought hard to try to get it accomplished, but it fell on deaf ears.”
Danish says another thing he is proud of from the session is the change that he pushed for in the high school diploma system. Senate Bill 1076 changes the state law so that Florida now is able to also offer “vocational” diplomas.
“We’re going to shift gears,” Danish says. “In committee, I found out that there are more than 100,000 jobs that are not filled because we don’t have anyone trained to take those jobs. Now we’re going to take a step in that direction. Students will learn other skills that will allow them to get good-paying jobs.”
When he goes back for his second legislative session in March of 2014, Danish says he knows what he’ll be tackling first. Based on a Hillsborough County ordinance that was approved in 2012, he pushed a bill this past session to provide assistance to disabled persons who pull into gas stations.
Currently, Hillsborough County gas pumps have a sticker on them displaying the station’s phone number. As long as there are two people working inside the gas station, an employee comes out and assists the person with pumping their gas. Danish hopes to see this local ordinance put into state law.
“It’s unfinished business,” he says. “It was moving in the Senate, but got stuck in committee. But, there’s always next session.”
Danish says that this summer, after school lets out, he plans to host a series of four public meetings in different parts of his district, including one in the New Tampa area, to get more information about the issues that are most important to his constituents and to update them on what he accomplished in his first session.
For more information about State Rep. Mark Danish, please visit MyFloridaHouse.Gov and click on the “Representatives” tab.