State Sen. Bobby Powell (D-District 30) and State Rep. Matt Willhite (D-District 86) spoke together at a town hall meeting Tuesday, Aug. 22, hosted by the Village of Royal Palm Beach.
Both legislators reflected on items from the past year’s legislative session in Tallahassee, including recurring water problems in the area of Lake Okeechobee.
“As you know, in June 2016, the governor issued a state of emergency with regard to the Lake Okeechobee discharges that were creating what they call algae,” Powell said. “Lake Okeechobee releases the water east and west in the Caloosahatchee and Indian River Lagoon. The amount of freshwater going into it started to create these algae blooms.”
The blooms are toxic to the touch, the smell and to wildlife living in those environments, Powell said.
“That state of emergency lasted 363 days,” Powell said. “What ended up happening when we went to Tallahassee, of course they talked about the beaches that were closed, the restaurants, the businesses that closed in that area. When we went to Tallahassee, it was Senate President Joe Negron’s top priority to stop the algae blooms from affecting the coastline in Indian River and Martin counties.”
Powell said Negron came up with a plan to create more holding areas for drainage from the lake. This meant purchasing 60,000 acres of land south of the lake near areas such as Belle Glade and Pahokee.
“In those areas, they have high unemployment rates, sometimes as high as 40 percent,” Powell said. “The major industry that people are employed in is agriculture, and we’re talking about purchasing 60,000 acers of agricultural land and taking it out of production, which many of the people in that area knew would decimate that area.”
Powell and Willhite were among the lawmakers who looked to come up with a plan that might mitigate that potential issue for local people in those areas south of the lake.
“What happened was we used the A-2 Reservoir, which is land that we already owned, and that will be coming into production… and some of the land is already used for holding water,” Powell said. “Additional storage will be able to happen in the dike and normally will be used for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program to make sure that when we move forward, those discharges don’t continue to move east and west of Lake Okeechobee.”
Medical marijuana was a big topic during the past session. Both Powell and Willhite made sure the conversation was focused on medical marijuana, not marijuana for recreational use.
“The funny part that I think about, when I think about medical marijuana: the state of Florida and Palm Beach County are spending more money fighting medical marijuana than trying to combat the opiate epidemic in our state,” Willhite said. “This is doctor-regulated, and it can be used for medical purposes… Yet we’re spending more money to fight something that was voted on by more than 71.5 percent of the voting population in the entire State of Florida.”
Willhite is a member of State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s Sober Home Task Force that is helping fight the opioid epidemic.
“Every day, I see people this happens to and how it affects these families, the insurance industry and what it’s doing with these sober homes,” he said. “You know they’re spending all this money on that, on medical marijuana, to fight something that has been overwhelmingly passed. That is going to have serious regulations on it, yet we have an industry right now that’s not being regulated enough, and people are dying from it.”
Willhite said it is the job of people in positions such as his to put regulations in place regarding medical marijuana in the state.
“I have a job. You’ve tasked me with the responsibility of putting in place what you want,” he said. “I ask my staff to do it. They help you with what you need, and they follow the regulations. With the regulations that are there, we have been assured that things are going to change.”
Powell, who sits on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, noted that healthcare remains a huge issue in Florida.
“That’s the biggest part of our budget, health,” he said. “Here in the State of Florida, as our population continues to age, over 35 percent of our budget is spent on medical services.”
Willhite said that passing bills isn’t the most important thing for him in his role when he is in Tallahassee, but he did talk about the importance of passing local bills for the people he represents.
“Local bills, although they don’t go through the full house and chamber, and have all this dialogue and discussion and everything, but they’re something that is obviously affecting specifically our district, and that’s why we file it,” Willhite said.
“So, I filed to pass a bill to change the West Palm Beach police pension fund. It’s a special act by the legislature. The legislature has to sign off on it, but it affects the City of West Palm Beach police officers and their benefits.”
Willhite said through negotiations with the city, the bill he brought to Tallahassee was agreed upon and able to be passed.
A question from social media asked both Willhite and Powell what they believed to be the next big issue for the upcoming session. Willhite noted that next year’s session will begin and end earlier.
“We’re coming up on an election year, so now we have more time because the session will be done in early March instead of waiting until maybe June, when we ended our last session,” Willhite said. “So, I don’t know if there are going to be any real huge, controversial items that come up.”
Willhite said he thought many of the big issues regarding education and medical marijuana were covered in the previous session. He did say he thinks things may be done to try to bring more money back for public education in the state.
Gun control issues are always hot-button topics, Powell added.
“The most divisive issues came up last year,” Powell said. “One of the most divisive issues that came up was the ‘Stand Your Ground’ [law] argument, where they took the burden of proof… off of the defense and put it on the prosecution.”
Powell agreed with Willhite that because the next session falls in an election year, it will not be as controversial compared with items from this year’s session.
ABOVE: School Board Member Marcia Andrews, RPB Councilwoman Jan Rodusky, State Rep. Matt Willhite, RPB Mayor Fred Pinto, State Sen. Bobby Powell and RPB Councilman Jeff Hmara.