Accompanied by her two young sons and an aide, Florida Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, made a whirlwind tour through the Middle Keys on June 15 to talk about Tallahassee. Normally, she would have been accompanied by state Rep. Jim Mooney, but he was called away for a family emergency. Nevertheless, she used her time to tout the strides made in the state capital on behalf of Florida Keys constituents. 

“The legislation session was better than expected,” Rodriguez told the crowd at the monthly Marathon Chamber of Commerce meeting. “We went into the session with a $3 billion deficit and because our open economy did so well under Gov. Ron DeSantis, we were able to close with a balanced budget and a $9 billion reserve.”

She highlighted several state grants to local entities: $500,000 for AHEC, $200,000 for the The Guidance Center as well as money for Truman Little White House in Key West, Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority and Habitat for Humanity of the Upper Keys. 

“But the crown jewel in funding,” Rodriguez said, “was the $20 million for the Florida Keys Stewardship Act. The state legislature enacted the Florida Keys Stewardship Act in 2016 and its funding varies from year to year — sometimes $4 million, sometimes $6 million. “Historically, I think this is the first year we’ve received the full amount.” The money pays for programs that protect the Florida Keys’ unique and fragile resources, including its coral reef, seagrass beds, and mangroves. Florida Keys communities also use the funding to implement water quality projects to protect these resources. 

Rodriguez, a Republican, also highlighted the state’s tax-free holidays, legislation she’s well-acquainted with as the chairperson for the state Finance and Tax Committee. The Disaster Preparedness holiday has already passed, but two more are upcoming: the annual Back to School tax holiday from July 31 to Aug. 9, and “Freedom Week” from July 1-7. Its purpose is to encourage spending on recreational and cultural activities as pandemic restrictions disappear. 

“Floridians can buy camping or boating gear without paying taxes, or even buy outdoor concert tickets,” Rodriguez said. 

The senator also told the crowd of Middle Keys business owners and executives about passing legislation designed to protect industry from lawsuits filed by clients and employees who might claim they caught COVID-19 in business or on business property. 

The Florida Legislature also passed Senate Bill 50 that does two things: charges state tax on remote sellers who collect more than $100,000 per year, an “internet sales” tax, and lowers the business rent tax from 5.5% to 2%, but only after the state’s unemployment fund balance is rebuilt to about $4 billion. 

Rodriguez said that lowering taxes is always a good thing, and that leveling the playing field among business owners who operate on the internet and those with brick and mortar establishments is only fair. 

A former City of Doral elected official, Rodriguez told the crowd she understands their frustration with recent threats to “home rule,” or local governments’ ability to tailor laws to their needs. She said she and her colleague Mooney fought hard to keep established swim zones from being eliminated in neighborhoods like Port Antigua. As for the cruise ship bill, which struck down Key West’s ability to establish criteria for the type of ships that can enter the harbor, she said she did not prevail. 

“I voted with our residents. Unfortunately, my colleagues voted to undo Key West’s wishes. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” Rodriguez said. 

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Sara Matthis thinks community journalism is important, but not serious; likes weird and wonderful children (she has two); and occasionally tortures herself with sprint-distance triathlons, but only if she has a good chance of beating her sister.