NEW PORT RICHEY — Subpoenas of Veterans Administration officials, protections for private utility customers, schools for career training and human trafficking penalties were among many issues at a West Pasco Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, state senators Wilton Simpson and John Legg, and state representatives Richard Corcoran and Amanda Murphy addressed the large crowd last Friday.
“We need to clean house” if VA leadership ignores congressional subpoenas, Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, said. VA officials are supposed to respond between Wednesday evening and Friday about an investigation into maltreatment of veterans or long waits for appointments.
One veteran said he had to wait some nine months to schedule time at a clinic.
“We’ve got to hold these people accountable,” Bilirakis told the large crowd. “It’s unacceptable.”
Bilirakis, vice chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. continues to seek to consolidate the five Pasco VA clinics into a centralized facility with about 150,000 square feet. The U.S. House passed a bill to do so months ago, but the U.S. “Senate is still sitting on it.”
Large spikes in flood insurance rates occupied a lot of Bilirakis’ attention in recent months.
“I was all in,” Bilirakis said about rolling back the rate increases for area residents. He said he worked with Democrats to get the legislation passed in short order. “That’s how to get a good bill.” Some tweaks remain to give a break to commercial property owners.
Bilirakis also is promoting Brand USA which encourages international tourists to visit. The program doesn’t use taxpayer dollars, he noted.
Simpson, R-Trilby, trumpeted the many Pasco projects that will receive state grants.
A tri-county manufacturing program is in the works, Simpson reports. Manufacturing would give the Florida economy a “fourth leg” to stand upon besides tourism, construction and agriculture.
Port improvements in the region could mean a boon in imports and exports for Pasco as well.
A water resources bill would help the state recapture some 700 million gallons of groundwater or reclaimed water flowing into the gulf or ocean, Simpson believes. It would help ease the strain on the aquifer.
“With growth coming back, the water wars are going to heat up again,” Simpson fears. “We know all about that in Pasco County. We need to get ahead of the curve.”
Simpson fought for protections for private utility customers. “There was no accountability” of privatized monopolies for water quality or rates. Lawmakers passed thresholds where customers can appeal to Public Service Commission.
The largest state budget ever isn’t something to be proud of, but Simpson was glad the $77.1 billion included $500 million in tax cuts and $3 billion in reserves.
Legg, R-Lutz, spoke about the connection between education and jobs.
Legg, a charter school educator, does not believe every child has to go to college. He is helping to develop a “pathway to success” with more vocational training and industry certification for students as a “workforce pipeline.”
An aeronautical academy got $1.5 million earmarked in the state budget, Legg said, if the governor doesn’t veto the appropriation.
“I’m as guilty as anyone,” Legg remarked about overly complicated assessments of school and student performance. He helped lay the groundwork for the transition to a new assessment program.
Corcoran, R-Lutz, noted lawmakers established three sales tax holidays this year for residents, starting with breaks for hurricane preparation.
He helped expand the Veterans Bill of Rights on in-state tuition costs.
He also wants more school choice for middle-class or lower middle-class residents and their children.
Corcoran hailed the “greatest pro-consumer water rights bill” finally gives some protections for customers, especially clients of privately-owned utilities.
Murphy, D-New Port Richey, began by joking about being the only Democrat and woman in the Pasco legislative delegation.
“Pray for me every day,” Murphy kidded.
A “huge problem” of human trafficking concerned Murphy during her rookie term after winning a special election in October. She helped secure a tougher penalty of 50 years in prison on a first offense for any person convicted of victimizing children age 16 or under.
“Don’t mess with our kids,” Murphy emphasized.
She was dismayed how hundreds of children have died while under state care or supervision, so lawmakers funded programs for victims as well as law enforcement agencies with units to investigate child abuse.
Being a rookie, Murphy was fascinated by observing her Pasco legislative teammates in action.
House Speaker “Will Weatherford was “amazing (while) multitasking,” Murphy said. She often refers to Corcoran as the “hammer” in the House. Legg knows how to tweak the language of a bill. Simpson is “fearless,” she added.
“All together, we make a pretty good team,” Murphy said to loud applause from the audience.