And What United Way of Broward County Is Doing to Make Lives Better
by Nazbi Chowdhury, United Way of Broward County Director of Public Policy & Strategic Initiatives
In mid-January, a collective of our United Way staff, members of our Public Policy Advisory Committee and volunteers from our Commission on Behavioral Health & Drug Prevention attended a legislative session in Tallahassee for what is known as Broward Days.
Broward Days is an annual event where businesses, nonprofits and local elected officials join together to make an impact on legislative issues and specific bills affecting the communities and individuals we serve. This year, the 60-day legislative session in Tallahassee started in the first week of January and will end in the first week of March.
In mid-January, we met with legislative leadership in both Florida’s Senate and House, and learned how new pieces of legislation could potentially affect our community and how we can make a difference.
A major piece of legislation many people in our community, specifically United Way of Broward County, will be monitoring for this upcoming legislative session is what has been deemed the Live Healthy Act. This legislation is designed to expand access and resources to mental health and behavioral health statewide.
One critical part of the Live Healthy Act is to bring better economic support to the behavioral health workforce in Florida — providing resources to these essential workers so they continue to work in our communities and help ensure everyone has a better way of life.
An additional focal point this year was the ongoing challenge of affordable housing. We all know how the lack of affordable housing puts a heavy, nearly impossible burden on many people in Broward County and across our entire state.
The Live Local Act was proposed legislation from last year’s session that will look to increase the availability of affordable housing and provide a multitude of new programs and incentives to make housing more attainable. With over 31 municipalities, Broward County is one of the larger counties in our state. With the Live Local Act, the language needs to be unequivocally clear regarding the arrangement of complexities — such as developer relationships, zoning processes and types of land developers can use — to ensure more units and homes can be built and can be affordable for residents.
In our county, we’re proud to work with several amazing champions from the legislative delegation who mirror our fight for Health, Education, and Financial Prosperity, including Senator Jason Pizzo, the current chair of the delegation, who is slated to be the next Senate Democratic Leader, and Broward County Mayor Nan Rich, who has affordable housing and healthcare as her top priorities during her term as mayor. These strong leaders, along with our 31 municipalities, have a thorough understanding of how these new forms of legislation will affect our community and the people who live here.
As a recap of Broward Days, our United Way’s three pillars would be greatly fortified if each of the following legislation is passed.
- The Live Healthy Act —With the rising costs for housing, gas, groceries and other day-to-day expenses, healthcare workers and social workers often earn salaries that put them at or below the federal poverty level or right above the federal poverty level. They are what our United Way refers to as the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed) population. They’re educated, they are working and they have stable incomes. However, one emergency or one unexpected cost can put them at risk of not being able to make ends meet. One part of the Live Healthy Act is to create a loan repayment program for behavioral health workers that will reduce the burdens of paying off their loans.
- Ban of Smoking and Vaping in State Parks — A couple of years ago, the legislature passed a bill to prevent smoking and vaping on beaches, and our Commission on Behavioral Health is proud to have seen this legislation pass. Now we want to take an additional step by ensuring this ban is implemented in state parks so people can enjoy outdoor activities without having the detrimental risks of being near smoking or vaping.
- Expanded Eligibility for School Readiness — The Early Learning Coalition of Broward County, one of our United Way’s community partners, focuses on expanding the eligibility criteria for the School Readiness Program. These programs for income-eligible families are intended to serve as a preventive measure for children at risk of future school failure. Right now, if both parents in a household make a full-time income, then they would not be eligible for their child to take part in the School Readiness Program because they’re seen as making too much money. New legislation supports the expansion of eligibility, and the passage of this legislation would greatly impact us here in Broward County. There currently is a waitlist for families, and if this bill is passed, a significant number of families would experience financial, educational, psycho-social and developmental benefits from this program.
- Tax-Assistance Program — United Way works very closely with Hispanic Unity of Florida and the Urban League of Broward County to fund and operate VITA (Volunteer Income and Tax-Assistance Program). VITA is a game changer during tax season, especially for individuals who cannot afford tax professionals when filing their taxes. There currently is a statewide appropriation United Way of Florida is sponsoring that would, if passed, allow more funding to come to local United Ways, specifically United Way of Broward County. As a result, our community partners who run VITA would be able to reach more people and file more taxes for those who are not able to afford other tax services.
- Care for Spouses of Veterans— Proposed legislation for 2024 is to expand eligibility for VA nursing homes to include a spouse or a partner of a Veteran so that these family members can receive similar care. Right now, VA nursing homes are limited to Veterans only. However, many Veterans have depended on the care of their partners or spouses, and then it becomes too common that this spouse/partner is approaching a time where he/she also needs specialized care. United Way and our community partners believe it is humane to keep these two individuals together, and we support the legislation that would extend VA benefits to spouses of Veterans also in need of care.
Overall, I am extremely happy our work with community partners, municipalities and volunteers on our Public Policy Advisory Committee is making a substantial impact on statewide legislation as well as advancing our pillars of Health, Education and Financial Prosperity. The support we have experienced in Florida’s House and Senate for our committee’s agenda is in a fantastic spot, and the future certainly is bright for Broward County and for our overall state.
How can an individual like you make a difference to our United Way’s work in public policy and advocacy? Of course, one way is to increase your civic engagement. 2024 is an election year, and if you see a policy that you are passionate about, then it is important to know who the sponsor or the author is for this specific legislation. If you do not support a policy being promoted, it is just as important to contact your representative or local leader and then express your concerns.
To boost your civic engagement, attend a city council meeting in your area of residence. These meetings happen once a month, and municipalities typically offer in-person or virtual options to attend. Also, I recommend contacting your elected officials who represent Broward County in Florida’s House and Senate. Contact with your representative can be as simple as making a phone call or sending an email.
United Way of Broward County also has frequent communications with local governments/municipalities and our state government. As the head of United Way of Broward County’s Public Policy Advisory Committee, I am always available to discuss relevant issues. Anybody in Broward County who has an interest in advocacy and policy efforts is welcome to contact me to become a part of our committee’s processes. Then we can discuss how a person’s knowledge and experience can make a difference to the impact we are making.
For more information about our United Way’s impact on public policy initiatives, click here.