House District 44 candidates discuss education, marijuana, health care, tourism

Four of the five individuals who qualified as candidates in the upcoming House District 44 special election shared their opinions on topics pertinent to West Orange County during a debate held Friday, June 23.
by: Gabby Baquero Staff Writer

ORANGE COUNTY – With the upcoming House District 44 special election, qualifying candidates for the recently vacated seat were invited to a debate luncheon hosted by the West Orange Chamber of Commerce on Friday, June 23.

The hour-long debate – moderated by West Orange Times & Observer Publisher Dawn Willis – gave District 44 candidates the opportunity to share their stance on a variety of issues, including education, marijuana, health care and tourism.

In attendance was Democrat Paul Chandler and Republicans John Newstreet, Bobby Olszewski and Usha Jain. District 44 candidate Bruno Portigliatti, also a Republican, was unable to attend due to an out-of-town commitment.

EDUCATION

Questions regarding education received the most attention during the debate. Candidates shared their thoughts on low teacher salaries and state bills that established an increase in charter school funding and decreased total education funding by approximately $45 million.

The cause of the decrease in education funding was a rollback of the education contribution that stems from the local millage rate. When asked, all the candidates agreed they would support a restoration of the original funding levels from 2016.

Newstreet suggested engaging the local community to decide the best course of action on the issue and said maintaining an open dialogue is crucial. Jain reiterated her support for higher teacher pay because she believes education is of vital importance, while Chandler said that teacher competition should be fierce but isn’t because average teacher pay is too low.

“We can’t divest in education, we need to invest – invest in teachers and principals to provide for an outstanding workforce,” Olszewski said, reflecting the general consensus of all the candidates.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA

As soon as the topic of medical marijuana came to the forefront, the Republican candidates displayed their reservations on the use of medical marijuana. But Chandler, the only Democratic candidate, said he supports the use of medical marijuana and believes it could help people addicted to painkillers and opiates.

Like all the Republican candidates, Newstreet said he would agree to uphold state law but would not support the recreational use of marijuana.

“My vote will be toward making it very limited,” Newstreet said.

Olszewski said he respects the law but would suggest looking at home rule and analyzing how the addition of medical marijuana facilities might impact each individual community. Jain, on the other hand, showed strong negative sentiments regarding the use of medical marijuana.

“Marijuana is a drug that can be used both ways; I would never write a prescription for it,” Jain said. “You can pay me a million dollars, and I (still) won’t write you a prescription.”

HEALTH CARE

When it came to the matter of health care, the candidates were asked to suggest what can be done to lower the cost of health insurance in Florida.

Chandler suggested expanding Medicaid and emphasized a need to provide more funding for mental health facilities and focus on mental health treatment.

Republicans Olszewski recommended less regulation and to work closely with insurance providers and local hospitals to lower costs, and Newstreet emphasized funding for preventive care and well-being programs.

Jain, who is a doctor, said the issue of health care is one of the main reasons she chose to run, as she has grown weary of seeing patients who cannot afford treatment. She suggested the idea of a state facility where people may get the treatment they require regardless of health insurance coverage.

TOURISM AND GAMBLING

Regarding tourism, all the candidates were of like mind: Support tourism and limit the expansion of gambling. When asked if they would vote to keep the current amount of funding for Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing corporation, all the candidates agreed. The state agency nearly received a $15-million cut in state funding.

“The tourism community would have no better friend in Tallahassee than me,” said Newstreet, who is a former Disney cast member.

The candidates also showed wariness when asked about supporting the expansion of gaming in Florida and renewing the state’s pact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, stressing the need to keep Orange County family-friendly.

“I don’t want to see (Interstate 4) become like a Las Vegas strip,” Chandler said. “We should keep it family-friendly.”

As the only Democrat, Chandler will automatically advance to the special election in October, but Newstreet, Olszewski, Jain and Portigliatti will need to face off in the Republican primary Aug.15.

As published in the West Orange Times & Observer