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    A Times Editorial

    Meeting the needs of the vulnerable


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 13, 2002


    For a better Florida

    Part One
    Education doublespeak
    The evidence is overwhelming, but no one wants to admit that the state is falling short in education funding, including the governor, who denies the education budget has been cut.
    (Jan 6, 2002)

    Redrawing districts is cutthroat
    New lines must be drawn to keep up with the state's growth, but it is a conflict of interest for legislators to draw their own districts.
    (Jan 6, 2002)

    Editorials
    Education's lost advocacy
    In a time of financial peril for Florida education, two powerful images are emerging.
    (Jan 6, 2002)

    What's N.C. doing right?
    North Carolina spends less per pupil on public education than Florida, but has higher test scores. (Dec 30, 2001)

    Losing ground
    In spite of roaring job growth and increased tax revenue, Florida fell behind other states in a number of critical areas. (Nov. 14, 2001)

    What happened?
    Florida poured more money than ever into its schools. A record number of its residents had jobs. (Nov. 14, 2001)

    Wage-earners work harder just to keep up
    The disposable income of Floridians slipped in the 1990s from just above the national average to just below it. (Nov. 14, 2001)

    Program can claim to save lives, money
    Florida's Healthy Start program isgiven credit in the battle against infant mortality. Other causes await similar leadership (Nov. 14, 2001)

    The men and women who serve Florida's frail elderly, who work to shore up at-risk families and who spend their days and nights trying to heal abused or troubled kids are especially worried as the clock ticks down on the upcoming legislative session. They know the budget realities that face lawmakers. But they also know, better than most, that if the Legislature does not revive key health services tagged for elimination during the recent emergency budget-cutting session, and attempt to address long-neglected unmet needs, Florida's vulnerable populations will slip further behind.

    In that event we would all suffer, in increased health care costs, educational failure and crime.

    Under Gov. Jeb Bush's leadership, Florida has indeed made much progress in recent years toward improving the lives of its low-income and at-risk residents. Yet, even before the recent budget cuts, Florida was a long way away from fully meeting the needs of its vulnerable. Despite recent investments, elders still wait for the community services that could keep them out of nursing homes; hundreds of thousands of Florida children go uninsured; the number of children dying from abuse or neglect has grown; and juveniles are sent to jails rather than programs that might turn their lives around. Florida has no shortage of remarkable models of success. It knows what works. The problem is, our leaders have refused to invest at a level sufficient to keep pace with the growth in population and the escalation in needs.

    Will lawmakers find the resources -- and resolve -- to save the Medically Needy program and restore cuts in vital services to AIDS patients and ailing seniors? Will they go beyond the cuts and find new money to shore up the Department of Children and Families, Healthy Families and Healthy Kids? It won't be easy but, then, true leadership rarely is.

    No one yet knows how much general revenue lawmakers will have to work with, but it is safe to assume that new priorities, and new revenues, will be required if lawmakers are to meet the needs of Floridians, as well as their own obligations of leadership.

    An obvious place to start is the broken tax system. Next year, Florida will bring in $17-billion in sales taxes but forgive, through various exemptions, $23-billion. A mere fraction of that $23-billion would be enough to keep prescription-drug and catastrophic-illness coverage for Florida's working poor, to restore funding to vital prevention services for troubled kids, or even -- just imagine -- to start building on past successes. A mere fraction of that $23-billion would be enough to keep more abused children safe from the start, and more elders in their homes or community, not institutions. The tax reform plan offered by Senate President John McKay, which proposes doing away with many such tax breaks, is not perfect, but it provides a good reference point for finding solutions.

    Bush and most legislative leaders profess to want to "protect the vulnerable," and they may well be sincere. But that will be judged by what they do to meet prevailing needs -- and not merely by what they proclaim.

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