The Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners met this week. It approved their slate of asks and policy issues to request of the State legislators in the 2024 session, which starts on January 9.
State Legislators Patt Maney (R-Shalimar), Dr. Joel Rudman (R-Navarre), and Jay Trumbull (R-Panama City) will be asked to support these goals from now on. Still, they aren’t under any legal obligation to champion them in the coming months.
The Okaloosa County Commission made several requests on the policy side of the house to the state legislature, and only one large appropriation (money) request for the year that will have any sort of impact on the people of Niceville, Valparaiso or Eglin Air Force Base. They did make other appropriations requests for other parts of the county, including Fort Walton Beach.
Okaloosa County employs a lobbyist to advocate on the Board of County Commissioners’s (BCC) behalf in Tallahassee. Currently, The Advocacy Partners represent the BCC’s interests in the State Capital. They bill themselves as “The Advocacy Partners, a bipartisan, Florida-focused full-service government relations firm located in Tallahassee. The combination of our understanding of the issues, strong relationships, expertise, and character are what distinguishes our advocacy practice in Florida.” According to its website, the firm also represents Florida Public Media, AT&T, The Carpenters Union, IBM, Jet Blue, and several hospitals from around the country.
Among the list of requests this year from the Commission – they want the Republican-led legislature to rescind a law that forbade the sale of guns to people under the age of 21. The Florida Legislature passed a law in 2018 following the mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman-Douglas High School in Broward County. Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law that year. The Commission asked the legislature to rescind the almost five-year-old law as a matter of constitutional liberty. “This new prohibition passed as part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Protection Act appears on the surface to be unconstitutional and a policy decision that did nothing to protect schools. Instead, this provision of the act eliminated the constitutional right of lawful adults under the age of 21, who could otherwise legally vote, marry, own property, and raise a family by arming and protecting themselves and their families and otherwise enjoying the historical connection to gun ownership with sport and recreation,” The document which will be sent to legislators said.
The Commission has asked for a repeal of this law every year since 2018 without any changes. The Commission has also asked for changes to the law that would allow off-duty police officers and sheriff’s deputies under the current 21-year age limit to carry their weapons with them. I’ve checked with local law enforcement. Only the Niceville Police Department has responded to a records request on this – and of their officers, none are under 21.
State Representative Joel Rudman, who represents Okaloosa County north of Crestview, has filed – as well as a bill that would put the maximum waiting period to purchase a firearm to three days, or when a background check is restored, whichever is sooner.
The Commission has also asked that the legislature protect gun rights more generally and noted that it has named itself a ‘Second Amendment Safe-Haven.’
The Commission has also asked the legislative delegates to continue pursuing a reform on mental health policies and procedures at the state level – a passion of Niceville’s state Representative, Patt Maney. The Commission has asked for $325,000 for a mental health program, which would be matched with another $325,000 from the county’s coffers to expand the county’s current mental health diversion program.
In addition to the financial request – the county has asked the state to consider expanding mental health diversion programs for offenders around the state.
The program is a voluntary one that is supposed to move people out of the jail and prison systems, which are chronically overcrowded in the state of Florida – and into programs that are supposed to treat mental health conditions. The program’s supporters believe that by treating mental health issues and substance abuse disorders, they can lower the number of people in Florida’s jails and prisons – and reduce recidivism rates in the state.
Okaloosa County, which struggles with regular overcrowding at the jail, had 679 inmates interred inside its walls on November 8. The jail’s official capacity is 594.
What’s worse – the jail’s calendar year average daily population is higher than it is now – at about 749 inmates, meaning the jail sits at 126% capacity most of the time.
Overcrowding in Florida has been an issue since at least the early 1980s when the state legislature passed a law allowing jails to release low-level offenders if a jail reached 98% capacity.
The Okaloosa County Mental Health Diversion Program can host 15 in-patients for their 90-day-long stay.
“Due to the success of this program, the Office of State Attorney First Judicial Circuit has expanded the range of offenses eligible for consideration for referral to this program from the original misdemeanor only to now include low‐level non‐violent felonies,” The county’s agenda packet concerning this item says, “Additionally, during this past year Public Defenders have been referring their clients to the Okaloosa Pre‐Trial Program staff for consideration to be accepted into the Okaloosa Pre‐Trial Mental Health Program. Evidence of the positive impact of this program is seen in the number of Inmates who have asked to be considered for this program.”
According to County documents, the program has served 130 people in jail who were referred by the Okaloosa County pre-trial diversion program since 2020. “During 2022, 72% of participants achieved successful program completion. Additionally, only six clients (17%) experienced rearrest during 2022, which continues to be below the average recidivism rate in Florida.”
Okaloosa County has also asked for the state to continue assisting in funding local libraries and a program that allows people without high school diplomas to earn their diplomas online.
Last year, the state put $19.3 million toward funding local public libraries across the state – a cut from previous years. The county will ask the state legislature to add about $4 million to that budget for all libraries statewide. “Florida’s population increased almost 15% between the 2010 and 2020 census. The perception may be that widespread technology decreases the need for libraries, but home access to broadband Internet is not universal. In the 2020 census, 12% of Okaloosa households and 13% of households statewide lacked an Internet subscription. Libraries are the only publicly‐provided access to interact with government agencies, apply for jobs, take online classes, file for benefits, and more.”
Okaloosa County’s BCC also asked for $750,000 to be allocated statewide for the Career Online High School Program. The program allows people without high school to earn their diploma with a scholarship that covers the program’s cost. Okaloosa County recently graduated its latest class of students on November 4, 2023. Okaloosa County has graduated 72 Okaloosa County residents from the program since it started.