State Sen. Bobby Powell (D-District 30) and State Rep. Matt Willhite (D-District 86) gave a report to the Royal Palm Beach Village Council on Thursday, April 19.
Powell led the update on what the Palm Beach County Legislative Delegation has been working on.
“We have a great team for Palm Beach County, and we work very well together,” he said. “The issues that we dealt with this year were gun safety reform related to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, education, healthcare, opioids, the tax package and the budget.”
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act was passed by the Florida Legislature, signed Gov. Rick Scott, and put into effect starting March 9. The act combines school safety and firearm safety.
The bill includes raising the age limit for buying firearms from 18 years of age to 21, requires a three-day waiting period for all firearm purchases, bans “bump stock” devices, provides $69 million for mental health services, $98 million for school hardening, such as better windows and safety, and $67 million for a “school guardian” program.
“As legislators, we were thrown a state of emergency because of what happened down in Parkland,” Powell said. “Many of our legislators either flew down or drove down right away to deal with the issue first-hand. Unlike a lot of the other incidences that have involved guns, we were in session at the time of the shooting, and, therefore, there was an immediate opportunity to act.”
He explained that when the Pulse nightclub shooting happened and when there was a shooting at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, the legislature was not in session.
“Because the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students had the aptitude to act and went to Tallahassee immediately to petition the Florida government, and to petition us as legislators to make the changes that they wanted to see, we were able to act immediately for them,” Powell explained. “Like many bills in Tallahassee, it has good pieces in it and some bad pieces in it. I will tell you, I did not support this piece of legislation, although many of our legislators did, and it passed. The reason I did not support it is because it did not contain a ban on assault rifles. I feel, personally, that there is no purpose for an assault rifle except to kill people.”
However, Powell said that there are some parts of the bill he supports.
“As for the funding for mental health, we are the 49th worst state in the United States on helping with mental health,” he said, “There is also funding for school hardening, like installing impact glass in the schools and having a single point of entry. I have even heard some schools want metal detectors.”
Powell opposes the funding for a “school guardian” program. “There is $67 million going toward the ‘school guardian’ program, what they have called the ‘marshal program,’ where non-instructional personnel would have the opportunity — if the school district and the local sheriff’s office agree to it — to carry a firearm in a school.”
The point of the funding is to allow the non-instructional personnel to take the required 132 hours of training.
“It won’t happen within Palm Beach County because the school superintendent and our sheriff’s department have already said no,” Powell explained. “It’s likely it won’t happen in Broward or Miami-Dade counties. Remember, Florida has 67 counties, where rural areas may think this is a good idea. They may not have the type of sheriff’s office and police force that we have in place.”
Willhite focused his talk on the opioid crisis here in Palm Beach County and across the State of Florida.
“This is a very serious issue,” he said. “Palm Beach County is one of the worst counties in the state behind Manatee County in opioid deaths per year.”
Willhite, who is trained as a firefighter, paramedic and EMT, said that Palm Beach County has taken a serious leadership role in the fight against opioids.
“I did ask for state funds to open our own addiction facility, but it fell short in the budget,” he said. “Many things were cut short because of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas bill. Let’s hope that we can continue to fight on this issue because it is so necessary.”
As a first responder, Willhite sees the toll the opioid crisis has taken across the county.
“The first responders have to deal with this problem every day, and it’s plaguing our community. The opioid crisis takes a toll on a community, and it takes a toll on the reputation of our state as well,” Willhite said. “There are so many people sending their children down here for rehabilitation, and they are having so many problems. Unfortunately, some of them are not making it back home. I will continue to keep working on this. Hopefully, with your support, we will combat this issue.”
Palm Beach County has become an epicenter in the state for the deadly opioid crisis. In 2016, there were 549 lives lost — a 114 percent increase from 2015. The upward trend continued in 2017 with more than 600 fatal overdoses.
Willhite also worked with the community to pass several local bills.
“The closest one to you is in the Town of Loxahatchee Groves, which has an independent water control district,” he said. “We wanted to allow the voters to go to a referendum to see if they want to merge the independent district into the town, similar to the way the Acme Improvement District did into the Village of Wellington many years ago.”
He was also proud of a bill designed to help first responders.
“The largest bill I was able to pass this year is the workers’ compensation benefits for first responders,” he said. “Workers compensation only covered a physical injury. Now it will include an aspect of mental illness.”
Powell invited village leaders and the community to keep in contact with him regarding their needs. “We will continue to work on some of these bills. Please continue to ask us for more. We will continue to fight for them,” he said. “I’ve found out in Tallahassee that if you don’t ask, you aren’t going to get what you would like.”
To contact Willhite’s office, call (561) 791-4071. To reach Powell’s office, call (561) 650-6880.