Pasco County's new legislative delegation had a bit of a different look this year as speaker after speaker remarked on the historic nature of Thursday's community forum — the first ever with a sitting and future speaker of the house.
"In the past, you guys have always had a lot more folks up there," State Attorney Bernie McCabe said, "but I agree it's high time we had a delegation of people from Pasco."
At the annual Pasco legislative delegation community forum, McCabe and 40 other people, some elected some not, were allotted three minutes to address legislators about any topic.
McCabe asked the legislators to continue working for a statute outlawing Internet cafes. He also asked the Legislature to pass a budget that includes pay raises for state employees.
"It's been four years since my employees have had a cost-of-living increase," he said. "I have to look those 420 people in the eye every year, and it bothers me that I can't do anything for them financially."
Freshman state Sen. Wilton Simpson said he "feels the pain" of public employees. "That's why I will be compelled to try to get the economy moving with some common-sense reforms," he said.
County Commissioner Henry Wilson asked legislators to extend Pasco County's new synthetic drug regulations to the state criminal code, and County Administrator John Gallagher requested state funding for a study on building an elevated toll road along the State Road 54/56 corridor.
School Superintendent Kurt Browning asked the Legislature to reconsider the schedule for implementing new statewide testing standards and policies linking teacher pay to test scores. He called the schedule "overly aggressive" and "not realistic."
Elections Supervisor Brian Corley said the Legislature needs to rethink procedures for early voting. "I'd like to restate the obvious. While the vast majority of the state had smooth elections, there were issues," he said.
Corley said reducing the number of early voting days from 14 to 8 was less of a problem in Pasco than elsewhere. His biggest complaint is the restriction on early voting sites to libraries and elections offices.
"We need more flexibility," Corley said. "I can tell you from being in the trenches, the number of days is not the issue. It goes back to the limited locations."
House Speaker Will Weatherford said Katherine Johnson, president of Pasco-Hernando Community College, made a compelling case to increase funding for the school, which is opening a new campus in his district. Johnson noted that PHCC receives less than 70 percent of its operating funds from the state, which ranks lowest among all state colleges and universities.
"You look at that charter and you see that PHCC is the worst funded college in the state; it's time to fix that," Weatherford said. "You have my commitment to stop that."
George Magrill, president of Youth and Family Alternatives, also cited statistics that caught legislators' attention. Florida's Sixth Judicial Circuit, which includes Pinellas and Pasco counties, has more children in foster care than any other circuit in the state.
He said some child protection investigators have caseloads twice the national standard, and the department is severely underfunded. Pasco County is also "the epicenter" of drug-addicted newborns, he said.
Rep. Richard Corcoran, who is expected to be House speaker in four years, found the numbers alarming. "We're dead last on every matrix," he said. "It's not an easy fix."
The delegation holds such meetings each year in preparation for the legislative session. The 2013 session begins March 5.