State Sen. Kevin Rader (D-District 29) and State Rep. Matt Willhite (D-District 86) gave the Wellington Village Council legislative updates on Tuesday evening.
Rader was first elected in 2008 to the Florida House of Representatives. He served six years before being elected to the Florida Senate in a district that includes Wellington.
In the first week of May, the legislators finished their 60-day session. Rader noted the differences between local and state government.
“Even though this is a non-partisan area of government, the legislature is a partisan place of government,” he said. “You have to understand the numbers. There are 40 state senators — 23 are Republicans and 17 are Democrats. In the state house, there are 120 members, with 73 Republicans and 47 Democrats. We have been a Republican-controlled state government for more than 20 years now.”
In general, legislation passes the legislature based on its membership.
“It is one-sided. So, you will see things that come up at the last minute that have been approved by the governor,” Rader said. ‘On the good side, we passed a $91.1 billion budget, up from $87 billion last year. The governor still has the ability to be doing line-item vetoes on projects, so we are still awaiting that.”
Although he was happy about certain legislation, like stronger prohibitions against driving while texting, enacting other items, like Amendment 4, restoring the right to vote for felons who have served their time in jail, has taken a totally different format because of the wording in the bill.
“One thing that makes me feel the best is after many years, we have proposed legislation on banning texting and driving,” Rader said. “We finally got it done. If you are doing any texting in a school zone or a construction zone, you can be pulled over and given a violation for that.”
Law enforcement now has the ability to enforce the crime as a primary, and not a secondary, offense. Under the new law, drivers can be pulled over for simply texting while driving. In addition, drivers must be totally hands-free when operating wireless devices in school zones and in construction zones when workers are present.
When it comes to voting rights, the approved Amendment 4 legislation has some murky language that has been interpreted differently by the two branches of the legislature.
“Sixty-five percent of Florida residents voted to restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who have completed their prison terms,” Rader said. “However, this bill was debated in the senate and the house toward the end of the legislative session. The ballot language, which stated that these former felons must complete all terms of their sentence, has been interpreted to include any outstanding fines, fees and restitution. In other words, these people will be unable to register to vote until they pay off any amount they still may owe.”
After his report, Wellington officials asked about issues important to them.
“How did we do on Sadowski?” Mayor Anne Gerwig asked.
The Sadowski Housing Coalition is a nonpartisan collection of more than 30 statewide organizations. The coalition came together in 1991 with the goal of obtaining a dedicated revenue source for Florida’s affordable housing programs.
“Unfortunately, the Sadowski funds were raided again,” Rader said. “There are some funds toward housing initiatives, but it was not held as financing for affordable housing. It’s a shame. It is one of the things that we talk about every year. But last year, it was the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act that took roughly $400 million out of the budget. This year, it was Hurricane Michael in the Panhandle.”
Gerwig was not happy that the legislature is not respecting the dedicated funds for affordable housing projects.
“Those were document stamps collected for affordable housing,” she said. “So that’s why it feels like the use of your tragedy fund, you swept housing funds to do that.”
The senator did not sway from the question, stressing the one-sided nature of the legislature. “We have been doing it since 2009,” he said. “In Tallahassee, you know, we love to just write home rule. If you ask me what we do in Tallahassee, I’d say we have absolutely no respect for municipalities and counties. Not because of what I believe in, but that’s the way the majority feels.”
Willhite, a former member of the Wellington Village Council, was also at the meeting to give a report on the legislative session. Part of his remarks focused on education issues.
“I’m thankful to be here, and thank you for having me,” he said. “This district out here in Wellington is near and dear to me because of some of those teachers who were just here.”
Earlier in the evening, Karen Epstein was honored for receiving the prestigious William T. Dwyer Award. She teaches at Wellington Landings Middle School, where Willhite’s son is one of her students.
“My son talks about Mrs. Epstein every day because he has her as a teacher,” Willhite said. “How lucky he is to have a teacher like her. I would like to echo what you said about this community. This is what makes this community, teachers like Karen Epstein. That’s what makes my kids want to do better, that’s what makes our families stronger in this community, because we have teachers and educators who inspire children.”
While the legislature passed a $91 billion budget, Willhite noted that there were still shortfalls in key areas.
“Our communities are growing in population,” he said. “We have more needs for improvements. Normally, we would have more allocations for different projects, but this year we had to allocate $1.8 billion to go to Hurricane Michael relief. The federal government has fallen up short in the State of Florida and has not allocated money. So, the State of Florida has stepped up to hopefully help and support the communities in the Panhandle. Many of them are still not operating schools and having difficulty getting their crops in the ground. Peanuts and cotton are a major part of the industry there.”