Living Lessons In The Florida Legislature

This piece was published in the Miami Dade College student newspaper, The Reporter. It’s part of a series of articles I wrote for them between August 2013 and May 2015, now being uploaded in whole to ElMonzon.com.

No Guns: An individual proudly holds up a sign distributed by the Florida College System Student Government Association bearing the exclamation, "No Guns on Campus!" TOMÁS MONZÓN\THE REPORTER
No Guns: An individual proudly holds up a sign distributed by the Florida College System Student Government Association bearing the exclamation, “No Guns on Campus!” TOMÁS MONZÓN\THE REPORTER

At the Year-End Conference of the Florida College System Student Government Association (FCSSGA), about 250 students from Florida’s 28 community colleges (split up into four districts) united in Tallahassee from April 8-10. Their goal was to discuss the issues they wanted legislators to pursue during the legislative session. They also elected a new executive board and set of district coordinators.

Between speaker events and dining affairs, students got to meet and speak with state senators and representatives from their districts. Those personal interactions—formal and informal lobbying sessions were most meaningful for the students.


IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL – WEDNESDAY, APRIL 8, 7:30AM

On the balmy morning of Wednesday, April 8, 2015 at 7:30 a.m., 55 Miami Dade College Student Government Association officers and advisors from all eight campuses gathered bleary-eyed at the North Campus. Instead of studying political science in classrooms on campus, they climbed aboard a red and white VanHool coach bus driven by Barrington Samuels of Atlantic Charters, Inc. for a real-life civic lesson. They donned suits and ties, dress shoes and stockings to lobby in the marble halls of the Florida state capitol while the Sunshine State Legislature was in session.

“[We’re going] to unleash our power, unleash our voice, to let Tallahassee know what we’re representing and to try to make a difference for the students here on campus,” Gabriel Lechner, a senator from Kendall Campus’ SGA explained as the bus rumbled north on the Florida Turnpike.

Many in the group had never been to Tallahassee but Lechner and the other Student Government officers understood their mission to advocate for the College. Most importantly the College is seriously concerned about the cuts of appropriations for MDC of $6.3 million proposed in the Senate, and what MDC officials are calling the paltry $896,000 in new funding in the House budget. The House leadership has committed to adding more dollars to the budget, which the College would heartily welcome. Funding for the two initiatives of Entrepreneurship and Emerging Technologies remain to be seen. The same goes for appropriations for MDC-West.

There was a sense of excitement for all the students from MDC’s eight different campuses to be together.

The students and advisors endured 10 hours of travel time, with a handful of rest stops and two onboard movie screenings in between.


READY TO ROLL- WEDNESDAY, APRIL 8, 3:30 PM

The group arrived in Tallahassee at long last. They stretched their legs and checked into the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott – located a few miles away from the bustling Tallahassee downtown that houses the Civic Center, Florida Supreme Court, State Capitol and other institutions – and filled up the lobby’s sitting area as they awaited their first briefing by Miami Dade College’s Governmental Relations Director, Victoria Hernandez.

Fielding Questions: Victoria Hernandez, Governmental Relations Director and Head Lobbyist for the College, responds to a question from a student during a briefing session in the lobby of the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott upon the group's arrival in Tallahassee. TOMÁS MONZÓN\THE REPORTER
Fielding Questions: Victoria Hernandez, Governmental Relations Director and Head Lobbyist for the College, responds to a question from a student during a briefing session in the lobby of the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott upon the group’s arrival in Tallahassee. TOMÁS MONZÓN\THE REPORTER

Hernandez briefed the students on the College’s position on a range of issues, especially as wrought by the widely different budgets that each House has presented. The Senate budget stood at an approximate $80 billion while the House’s reached approximately $76 billion.

“The Senate right now wants Florida to be one of the next states that joins the federal affordable health care act,” explained Hernandez during the briefing session. “The House doesn’t want to do that. Everything else … suffers from that.”

Students attending FCSSGA agreed unanimously on issues such as a sales tax exemption for textbooks (part of HB7125 and HB7127), the continuing availability of bachelor’s programs at the community college level (SB1252) and the prohibition of guns on campus (threatened by SB176/HB4005).

“I’d like to be able to tell you that everything looks really great, that we’re going to get all this money for the College, that all these programs are going to be there for you … but I can’t say any of that,” Hernandez said.


GETTING TO THE TOP – THURSDAY, APRIL 9, 9AM

Comment: Ireynne Diaz-Carnero, a member of the Kendall Campus SGA, writes a comment on the envelope of a letter for District 117 Representative Kionne L. McGhee (D). TOMÁS MONZÓN\THE REPORTER
Comment: Ireynne Diaz-Carnero, a member of the Kendall Campus SGA, writes a comment on the envelope of a letter for District 117 Representative Kionne L. McGhee (D). TOMÁS MONZÓN\THE REPORTER

When the Miami Dade College bus pulled onto South Duval Street across from the state’s Capitol office building in Tallahassee, the 55 student leaders and advisors on-board had an hour to wait for a speaker event.

But Kendall Campus SGA member Ireynne Diaz-Carnero wanted to use her time to jump right into lobbying – talking directly to elected officials about important issues.

Diaz-Carnero went up to the dimly lit halls of the 14th floor of the Capitol office building, She perused through office directories posted on the wall by the elevator. Her goal was to find District 117 Representative Kionne McGhee’s office. His district includes part of Kendall.

Diaz-Carnero walked past a poster that welcomed visitors to “Miami-Dade County Days” at McGhee’s door.  The student was directed by an office employee to a closed door bearing McGhee’s nameplate.

McGhee was not there.

On an L-shaped desk diagonally opposite McGhee’s door, Diaz-Carnero found an alternative way to get her voice heard.

“This is his secretary’s card, and I am going to leave him a letter,” she said.

In her letter Diaz-Carnero voiced her complaints about insufficient financial aid for working students. She explained that she had sent the letter to College President   Eduardo J. Padrón and emailed several representatives.

Right off the bus, Diaz-Carnero put her lobbying skills to work.


CAPITOL STEPS – THURSDAY, APRIL 9, 11AM

Yay Or Nay: Legislators in The Florida House of Representatives look to a video screen on the far end of the room for yays and nays on a piece of legislation during an April 9 session.Each chamber looks just like you’d expect - a large, bustling room where minds do battle over the future of Florida law. In the House, a big video screen tallies representatives’ yays and nays as they vote on proposed bills while they simultaneously walk up and down the room conferring with one another. The pace is quick but not necessarily focus, with some Representatives glaring at the screen and others holding private conversations with others. TOMÁS MONZÓN\THE REPORTER
Yay Or Nay: Legislators in The Florida House of Representatives look to a video screen on the far end of the room for yays and nays on a piece of legislation during an April 9 session.Each chamber looks just like you’d expect – a large, bustling room where minds do battle over the future of Florida law. In the House, a big video screen tallies representatives’ yays and nays as they vote on proposed bills while they simultaneously walk up and down the room conferring with one another. The pace is quick but not necessarily focus, with some Representatives glaring at the screen and others holding private conversations with others. TOMÁS MONZÓN\THE REPORTER

The Rally to Tally held on the students’ only full day in the Capitol was a show of force for the 250-strong group to motivate and visually put on display the groups’ important platforms.

Students from Palm Beach,  Fort Myers, Broward and other Florida counties joined the group from MDC on the steps of the old Capitol Building. The columned supports and red and white window shades provided a regal backdrop to the mass of students and speakers stressing the importance of the students’ participation in their lobbying efforts.

Students waved pre-made signs saying “No Guns On Campus.”

The heat made many students use the signs to fan themselves or create some shade.

FCSSGA board members and special guests addressed an audience of community college students and faculty about the virtue of persistence and the vitality of student representation in the legislation.

“Students are the best ambassadors we have for anyone in the Florida College System; not presidents, not deans, not faculty,” Jeffery Allbritten, President of Florida Southwestern State College said at the rally. “And trust me, they listen to you.”

Ashley Gilbert, an Indian River State College student and a part of the FCSSGA’s executive board reminded the group of their mission.

“If a bill severely limits postsecondary opportunity or access back in our home districts, what are we gonna do?” asked Gilbert.

“We speak up!” returned the audience.


TAKING ON THE CAPITOL – THURSDAY, APRIL 9, 2PM

In a conference room on the side of the Capitol, MDC students finally have a chance to meet with an elected official.

Hernandez arranged for Florida Democratic Senator Dwight Bullard, who represents Hendry, Collier, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties to talk to the group.

Kendall SGA’s Lechner had taken the initiative in appointing these students to discuss the Idea Center, baccalaureate programs and guns on college campuses during a free exchange prior to Senator Bullard’s arrival.

“We have the Idea Center, it’s at the Wolfson Campus actually … and I believe it should go to all campuses because there’s actually a few of us here that would like to run their own business,” said Homestead Campus SGA President Stephanie Gutierrez.

Bullard listened to her concerns and agreed.

“If the state is concerned about the safety of our students, then we need to have a robust conversation on how to fund it, how to make it happen; not by allowing concealed weapons on campuses,” said Wolfson Campus SGA member Jude Bruno.

Bullard nodded in agreement.

Bullard was the only Dade County elected official to meet formally with the group. The students did not have a chance to lobby against opposing legislators.

To the group’s frustration, the FCSSGA conference this year was scheduled at the same time as Dade Days, an annual legislative session event that includes more than 1,000 representatives of more than 200 public and private organizations meeting with legislators whose constituents are from Miami-Dade County.

As of April 14, the Senate bill threatening bachelor’s degrees was postponed due to its sponsor’s inability to show up for a presentation before the Senate Education Appropriations Committee. Both House bills regarding postsecondary education affordability passed out of the House Education Committee with amendments. Finally, neither the House nor Senate bills for allowing guns on campus have moved forward since the House bill’s calendar appointment is due for a “second reading.”