Speaker after speaker stepped up to the podium to present their request to Pasco County’s state lawmakers.
They wanted funding to help a nonprofit.
They wanted lawmakers to put in a good word with state highway officials.
Or, they wanted their backing for a special cause.
About 100 people gathered on Sept. 29 in the gymnasium of Sunlake High School in Land O’ Lakes for a public forum, hosted by Pasco’s legislative delegation.
State Representatives Amanda Murphy, Richard Corcoran and Danny Burgess, and State Senators John Legg and Wilton Simpson listened for nearly three hours, as about 60 representatives of nonprofits, counties and municipalities, civic groups and individual citizens talked about the needs in their communities.
The forum is an annual tradition held prior to the annual legislative session, which is scheduled to convene on Jan. 12, 2016.
Corcoran, a Republican from Land O’ Lakes, will hold the powerful position of Speaker of the House.
Nearly all of the speakers gave lawmakers packets of information detailing specific funding needs or particular policies they want the delegation members to support or reject.
Requests covered a broad range of topics from public safety and school construction, to voter registration and smoke-free beaches and parks.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco advocated for tougher laws to help clamp down on illegal sales of synthetic marijuana.
Current law makes no distinction between the sale of one packet of the illegal substance or 1,000 packets, he said.
“We’re not trying to go after the person with a substance problem,” the sheriff said. “What we’re trying to do is go after the dealer.”
Nocco also urged lawmakers to address the growing problem of terrorist threats made via social media including threats to “shoot up” a school or church.
“There is no law in effect where we can go after them,” Nocco said. But he added, “People make statements and words have meanings.”
Sunlake High School student Mykenzie Robertson lobbied for a state law to ban smoking at public beaches and parks. Robertson is active with Tobacco Free Partnership of Pasco County and the statewide Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT).
“Parks, to me, are a place for healthy recreation,” she said.
Robertson also joined with Sunlake High School student Ormond Derrick later to talk about the problem of substance abuse among young people.
Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley asked lawmakers to consider adding veteran’s registration cards and gun permits to the list of approved identification for voters.
Corley also advocated for at least some of a voter’s personal information to be shielded from public records laws.
Now, access is open “to anyone and everyone,” Corley said. He cited a case of a man in New Hampshire who used Pasco County voter registration data to contact people for business purposes.
A handful of voters de-registered as a result of for-profit businesses accessing their information, Corley said. “That’s sad,” he said. “I think you would agree.”
Protecting data also was on the agenda for Pasco County Clerk and Comptroller Paula O’Neil who talked about the budget challenges in keeping up with technology to allow access, but also protect public records.
“About 95 percent of civil filings are electronic,” she said. “And that will soon be 100 percent.”
Funding issues are facing Pasco County’s school district as it tries to keep up with the explosive growth of new subdivisions, said Pasco School Superintendent Kurt Browning.
New residential development, especially along the State Road 54 corridor through Land O’ Lakes and Wesley Chapel, is pumping up school enrollments.
Sunlake High, for instance, was built for 1,800 students. But Browning said, “We exceeded that number. There are very few schools that don’t exceed what they were built for,” Browning said.
Oakstead Elementary School has 1,200 students in a school built for 762 students.
“Where do we put these kids?” Browning said. “We put them in portables. We cannot build schools fast enough.”
He made a pitch for lawmakers to approve a bill that would give local school boards the autonomy to increase existing property tax millage by half a mill. Board members would need to approve the increase by a super-majority or a unanimous vote, he said.
Pasco County’s Government Affairs Officer Ralph Lair presented lawmakers with a list of priority projects and issues for the coming year, including a state loan for widening State Road 56.
Another issue is funding for the Coast to Coast Connector Trail, which will link Florida’s west and east coasts from St. Petersburg to Titusville. The Florida Department of Transportation will decide which of two routes will be built for one of the trail’s segments. One route goes through northeast Pasco, while another would bypass Pasco.
Pasco officials hope to convince the state roads department to build both routes and create a loop.
“Just have that one on your radar,” Lair said.
Other speakers included Timothy Beard, president of the Pasco-Hernando State College. Help for a performing arts center was among his funding requests.
Brian Anderson advocated for veterans and discussed his nonprofit, Veterans Alternatives, which provides alternative therapies for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorders.
Representatives for Pasco Fine Arts Council, Habitat for Humanity, AMIKids Pasco and the Good Samaritan Health Clinic of Pasco also brought their concerns and talked about their program successes.
Peggy Wood of the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs and Janice Howie of the Nature Coast Chapter of Florida Native Plant Society spoke about environmental issues.
Howie said her organization supported Amendment 1, a constitutional amendment approved by 75 percent of voters to use real estate taxes to purchase land for conservation. In the last legislature, only a fraction of the anticipated $700 million was budgeted for land purchases.
“There is an opportunity to do better this year,” said Howie who is conservation chairwoman.
Wood asked lawmakers to oppose a bill that would bypass local control and give the state sole authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing, often called “fracking,” which is a controversial method of oil drilling.
At least 15 counties in Florida have approved bans on fracking, Wood said.
Texas has passed a bill that bypasses local authority, Wood said. “Now Texas has fracking, whether they (local government) want it or not.”
Published October 7, 2015