On March 5, the Florida legislative session will begin.

As state lawmakers prepare for another busy session, The Log sat down with former Destin mayor and current state Rep. Mel Ponder to get a sneak peak at what we can expect to see during this year's season.

You’ve got a chairmanship this year. Tell us about that.

Being a chairman as a sophomore is a big honor. I’m the chairman of Children, Families and Seniors (committee), which oversees three agencies: the Department of Children and Family, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, and Elder Services. The priority for me is getting my hands around all three agencies, especially DCF. I’d like to work alongside them and help shift the culture to one of honor and hope for these people that come through there. One of the things with DCF that’s really important to me is integrating the faith-based community. A lot of times the churches will have to pick up the pieces of the puzzle for the families going through these tough situations. They’re part of the solution all the way through, so I would like to bring them to the table.

Tell us about your two military bills this year:

One involves alternative treatments for veterans with PTSD and looking at a variety of treatments. We have a lot of retired veterans here and many have struggled with PTSD in some capacity, so we’re looking at a policy that reframes the statute to look at alternative treatments.

The second is working with the Florida Defense Task Force, which is big in Northwest Florida, and clearing out some military issues. If you’re active duty in Florida and your child gets accepted to a state university or college, our policy now says if you get orders out of state because of the military, if they’re not a resident of the state at the time of registration for classes, they flip it to out of state tuition, so we want to honor the military and make it in-state. We also want to deal with some of the encroachment issues on land surrounding military bases and, if the ownership changes hands, make sure they comply with building regulations around bases.

Can you explain your bill regarding mental health in the criminal justice system?

Two years ago, we passed a mental health diversion pilot program based (on a program by) Judge Steven Leifman out of Miami-Dade County, who was having tremendous success of working with repeat offenders in our system. In the Okaloosa County Jail, I believe the county has said we’re about 300 or so people over the required population and about half of those are repeat offenders. If they had the right mental health and substance abuse treatment, they would get out of the system, saving tax payers money and they would get the right help that they need so that they are no longer repeat offenders.

What have residents been concerned about when talking to you?

Transportation is a big deal. We’re trying to work in the widening of Highway 85 up in Crestview. We just need to give them hope that we’re gonna get it done.

Workforce development is also a big one. We have a deficiency, in my opinion, in workforce development in terms of what we’re offering through degree programs. We meet a lot of the need but we have a deficiency in what we offer versus what we have out there. Gov. DeSantis is looking to revamp what we do statewide and do an audit that will asses what we currently offer, where the needs are today, where the needs are going and what do we need to do internally so that we’re training people for jobs they’ll have in five years and not just today.

What about Hurricane Michael recover efforts?

We now get the opportunity to help those people who are still hurting so I’m working with Chair Trumbull and Chair Drake and Sen. Gainer to try to make sure we can help them if we can. They’re going through hell over there, they really are so I’m trying to support them as much as I can. One of their biggest concerns, and mine too, was that every camera was on them at first until the next big story. But their hurt didn’t go away. My hope and prayer is that they not only rebuild but also revive.

Overall, how do you feel about this year’s upcoming session?

Very optimistic. I’m very honored that Speaker Oliva would allow me, as a sophomore, to chair a committee and I’m getting to work with a group of our state's most vulnerable, children and family, which are near and dear to my heart. At the end of the day, the House and the Senate have to finish with the same bill. I think we’ll have some really good policy that we’re going to be proud of and hopefully funding will get a few victories and we’ll have a balanced budget.