State Rep. Matt Willhite (D-District 86) addressed the public during a town hall meeting at the Wellington Municipal Complex on Wednesday, Feb. 27. State Sen. Kevin Rader (D-District 29) was slated to speak as well but was unexpectedly out of town. His legislative assistant, J.J. Piskadlo, was there on his behalf.
The intent of the meeting, in addition to providing an opportunity for the public to directly address their Tallahassee representatives, included a summary of bills proposed by both officials and highlighting some of the main issues being addressed in the 2019 legislative session. The 60-day session got underway this week and continues through April.
Each member of the Florida House of Representatives is assigned to various committees. Willhite serves on four committees, including the Rules Committee, the Commerce Committee, the Business & Professions Subcommittee and the Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee. He also serves as the chair of the Palm Beach County Legislative Delegation.
“Legislation we file is secondary,” Willhite said. “Passing laws and bills is secondary to the appropriations we can bring back to you.”
He then provided a list of appropriations he is working on in the area, which includes: the Swain Blvd. sewer extension in Greenacres ($435,000); the Royal Palm Beach canal system rehabilitation project ($550,000); the Royal Palm Beach Commons Park Special Needs Playground ($500,000); the Palm Beach Habilitation Center Memory Care Group Home ($1,000,000); the Boca Raton Habilitation Center/Adults with Disabilities ($300,000); Transportation Disadvantage Discounted Bus Passes for Palm Beach County ($2,000,000); Loxahatchee Groves horse crossing signalization ($27,246); the Loxahatchee Groves North Road Equestrian Trail ($47,500); North B Road improvements in Loxahatchee Groves ($1,746,670); and South D Road improvements in Loxahatchee Groves ($743,000).
Willhite is also involved with the Veterans & Military Families Caucus.
“That has all of our elected veterans coming together. We leave our party affiliations at the door,” Willhite said. “What we want to try and do, to help our veterans, is make Florida the most veteran-friendly state there is.”
Willhite has also introduced several bills that highlight the need for assisting citizens battling with Alzheimer’s disease, changing the methods for dispensing medical drugs and better care for firefighters going through cancer treatments.
“I’ve found problems in the system,” he said. “This would allow Florida law to be changed to allow hospitals to, upon discharge, to be able to dispense 48 hours of medication as you leave. The reason it’s so important is maybe to get you over the weekend and get you to a specialist. I can tell you the doctors support this because it is a true continuity of care.”
Another bill important to Willhite is the implementation of a drug-dispensing kiosk capable of distributing up to 600 non-narcotic medications. He feels this would be extremely useful after natural disasters, such as hurricanes.
Rader’s assigned committees include the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health & Human Services; Agriculture; Children, Families & Elder Affairs; the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee; and Government Oversight & Accountability, of which he is the vice chair.
Of the 24 bills introduced by Rader, Piskadlo provided information on a few of the higher-profile bills, such as the Florida Teacher Fair Pay Act, Creating the Office of Drug Control, Prohibition of Plastic Carryout Bags and Straws, Beverage Container Deposits, Hate Crimes Statute Update and Primary Election Reform.
Willhite also outlined the top issues expected to be addressed during the upcoming session.
“The largest part of our budget is healthcare costs,” Willhite said. “The governor has proposed more than a $91 billion budget this year, and half of that goes to healthcare.”
Other hot topics for the new session are the environment, specifically concerns over blue-green algae and red tide, issues with voting, clarification of all the recently passed constitutional amendments, full implementation of medical marijuana, and school security issues. “The only single obligation is we have to pass a balanced budget at the end of session,” Willhite said. “But that’s not the only thing we do.”
When the floor opened to the public, some residents came forward with thanks for Willhite’s pursuit of projects, including the first memory care group home in Florida and being an advocate for those dealing with Alzheimer’s in their families.
A few questions came from former Palm Beach County School District employee Brenda Williams regarding the increase in teacher pay and Tallahassee’s view on charter schools. Piskadlo confirmed that cost of living increases would be included in the pay increase, while the legislators would fight to get Florida teachers’ pay brought up at least to the national average.
“Charter schools are a topic highly talked about,” Willhite said. “I think Tallahassee is friendly to charter schools. I also think public education needs to be turned upside down.”
He followed the comment by recommending schools be structured as K-8 facilities and also look into attending school year-round to avoid issues such as “the summer slide.”
Wellington Councilman John McGovern reached out to Willhite regarding HB 3, a law that would forbid local governments from imposing new regulations on businesses. He requested that Willhite commit to opposing the bill, designed to preempt local “home rule” regulating authority.
“I don’t have to commit to it; I voted against it last week,” Willhite said. “HB 3 was proposed, and I asked things unique to Wellington, like fireworks related to equestrians. Why can’t we have our own ordinance for that? We want increased water quality standards. Can we not have our own, higher standards? It was overreaching.”
Piskadlo said that Rader’s feelings echoed those of Willhite, and that no one knows an area like the local residents. He also expanded on some of the major issues Rader plans to address during the session.
“Sen. Rader wants to recreate the Office of Drug Control. The State Senate thinks it is really important to bring it back. [Former Gov. Rick] Scott disbanded it,” Piskadlo said. “Sen. Rader is very involved in the opioid crisis and getting adequate funding to deal with that.”
Rader is also looking to add gender and orientation to the Hate Crimes Statute, starting a program where beverage containers can be cashed in, and exploring bans on plastic bags and straws.