Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Politics

Pasco officials bring their wish lists to legislative delegation

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco's lawmakers got a bundle of Christmas wish lists Thursday from local officials, nonprofit groups and residents.

But for those whose list includes extra state money, House Speaker Will Weatherford had a couple warnings.

"We're certainly not going to be giving away goodies," said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "When you go home at night and say your prayers, just make sure you pray the Supreme Court does the right thing on the pension ruling."

He was referring to a case that could overturn a new requirement that state and local government employees contribute 3 percent of their salary to the state pension system. If that goes away, he said, the state could have to come up with an extra $2 billion.

Those warnings applied to many of the dozens of groups who spoke to Pasco's legislative delegation Thursday at Rushe Middle School. Some high-profile requests:

• After several years of flat salaries, State Attorney Bernie McCabe asked lawmakers to approve a cost-of-living increase for state workers.

"I think it's time to recognize the hard work those people do," he said.

Several Pasco teachers echoed that call, noting a Times/Herald report that Weatherford and his Senate counterpart gave hefty raises to top staffers.

"That's a lot of money," said Robert Marsh, a teacher at Land O'Lakes High School. "Where's my raise?

Weatherford called the pay raise article "selective reporting" and said the overall speaker's budget decreased compared to last year. But he said he understands employees' underlying frustration about salaries.

"Hopefully in the near future we'll be in a position to address that," he said.

• Pasco-Hernando Community College president Katherine Johnson said her school ranks at the bottom in funding for Florida's state colleges. Weatherford said lawmakers should "fix that."

"Pasco should not be the worst-funded community or state college in the state of Florida," he said.

• Officials also asked for a boost in state road money to widen State Road 52 and U.S. 41, and to extend State Road 56 to Zephyrhills. County Administrator John Gallagher also asked for lawmakers to continue work on a proposed elevated tollway along the State Road 54/56 corridor.

"If you look at the region, Pasco County is the northern belt," he said.

Sen. John Legg said both Pasco and Hillsborough officials should help craft the project. He noted that communities such as Lutz and Wesley Chapel straddle the county line.

"That line is arbitrary now," he said. "It is one community."

Other suggestions wouldn't cost a dime.

• Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning said it has been a "rough week" for the district following the suicide of a 16-year-old student at Fivay High School. The incident has put a greater focus on bullying via social networking sites.

"Our policies within the Pasco School District have not kept pace with social media," Browning said, asking for support on antibullying initiatives. "We readily admit we're not prepared."

Browning also asked lawmakers to delay new "common core" high school graduation requirements and a link between teacher pay and student test scores. Those, along with new online testing requirements, are set to take effect as soon as two years.

"The overly aggressive implementation schedule is not realistic," he said. "It is so problematic that it has a great opportunity to jeopardize student success."

• Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley had two suggestions to fix problems related in the November election. He said the historically long ballot caused delays for voters. He also asked for the option to hold early voting outside government buildings, which can be too small to handle demand.

"The number of days was not the issue," he said. "It goes back to the location."

• Legg, R-Trinity, also asked about creating a "veterans court" for returning combat veterans who commit minor crimes. McCabe said he has been seeking federal and state money to create such a program, which would focus on soldiers with post-traumatic stress or substance abuse problems.

• Several speakers urged lawmakers to tackle prescription and synthetic drug abuse. County Commissioner Henry Wilson asked that the state consider using the county's new ordinance as a model. The new rules target synthetic drugs based on their marketing and appearance, not by chemical composition.

Others asked for more support for drug treatment programs. Sixth Circuit Chief Judge Thomas McGrady called drug-related crimes an "enormous burden" on the court system.

"Treatment is a better bang for your buck," he said.

Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.

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