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Politics / Issues

Senate President Pitches Juvenile Justice, University Changes

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WUSF Public Media
State Sen. Joe Negron

Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican unanimously elected to lead the Senate on Tuesday, regaled colleagues with an account of putting Ronald Reagan stickers outside a home owned by the Bush family on Jupiter Island.

The story from the 1980 presidential campaign served as an anecdote of youthful "mischief," as Negron reiterated his desire to eliminate punitive juvenile-justice laws.

Changes in the juvenile-justice system were one of the priorities Negron outlined Tuesday as he formally moved into one of the most-powerful jobs in the state for the next two years. Other priorities include stopping pollutant-filled discharges from Lake Okeechobee and improving the national reputation of the state's universities.

But Negron also warned university presidents, who he wants to have a free hand in hiring "the best faculty," not to give in to a growing campus trend of providing students with safe spaces, free of unpleasant or conflicting ideas or comments.

"Dating back all the way to antiquity, institutions of higher education have always served as forums for free speech and the open idea of expression," Negron said. "I hope our universities will continue to reject the culture of coddling that has consumed some campuses around our country the last few weeks and months."

"No one has a right to shut down speech simply because it makes someone feel uncomfortable," Negron added. "We should train students to articulate and defend their ideas in an open, responsible way that prepares them for the real world."

Negron's comments came as the Senate held a one-day organization session, following the Nov. 8 general election and in advance of the 2017 regular session. The Senate includes 20 new members in the Republican-dominated, 40-member body.

Sen. Travis Hutson, an Elkton Republican who had been the only new member of the Senate during the past two sessions, joked that he looked forward to the new members.

"After being hazed for two years, no one is more excited about seeing fresh new faces than me," Hutson said.

At the start of the organization session, former Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, asked for a moment of silence for the 49 victims of the summer's mass shooting the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

"For those of us who were there shortly after, it has made a huge impact on our future," Gardiner said.

The Senate also approved rules for conducting business that are less sweeping than House changes. The House, for example, will bar lobbyists from texting lawmakers during committee meetings and require members to file separate bills for proposed spending projects.

As is common for largely ceremonial sessions, the Senate on Tuesday drew a crowd of state leaders and former lawmakers. They included Gov. Rick Scott, state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and newly elected Congressman Al Lawson, a former state senator from Tallahassee.

In a speech that was heavy on policy, Negron recounted that during the 1980 election he was caught with a friend putting campaign stickers and signs for Reagan outside the Jupiter Island home of Dorothy Bush, the mother of President George H.W. Bush and grandmother of President George W. Bush and Gov. Jeb Bush. George H.W. Bush ran for president in 1980 and later became Reagan's vice president.

Negron, a corporate attorney, grew up in Hobe Sound, a quiet community west of the Intracoastal Waterway from the wealthy Jupiter Island where the Bushes had a home.

Jupiter Island police allowed him to remove the signs and stickers rather than face possible charges that Negron said could have included criminal mischief, defacing property, trespassing, fleeing and attempting to elude and conspiracy.

"We cannot and should not tolerate serious wrongdoing by young people," Negron said Tuesday. "But at the same time, let's not criminalize adolescence."

Negron also reiterated his desire to reduce the flow of polluted water out of Lake Okeechobee into nearby waterways. He supports a potential $2.4 billion state and federal project to buy sugar land for water storage south of the lake.

The proposed land purchase is expected to face opposition from lawmakers with concerns about water improvement projects throughout the state.

"We've been talking about a southern reservoir for 20 years," Negron said. "The time for talk is over, it's time to act."

Negron in recent months also has focused heavily on changes in the university system, including make sure that campuses are financially accessible for students.

"We have students that are working 40 and 50 hours a week and trying to go to school full-time, which doesn't work," Negron said. "One of my goals is to increase our four-year graduation rate, and I think we would be able to do that if we put students in a situation where they work part-time."

He acknowledged that his vision won't be competed in the two years he will oversee the Senate, "but we can make a very good start."

The vision is to put Florida's universities on par with schools such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan, Negron said.

"Universities to which Floridians will apply and frequently pay out-of-state tuition if they can get accepted," Negron said.