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Plea made for health care tax

But a key in preserving the Hillsborough tax, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, was not among the legislators hearing requests for aid.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 1, 2003

TAMPA -- For the past decade, Hillsborough residents and visitors have paid an extra half-cent sales tax to provide medical care to low-income people without insurance.

The tax is levied by the County Commission with the Legislature's permission, and it will automatically expire in 2005 unless lawmakers extend it before then. If the tax disappears, supporters say, thousands of residents will have no choice but to flood hospital emergency rooms when they need medical attention.

Five of seven commissioners put forth a united front in favor of the tax Friday at a county legislative delegation hearing, and most local lawmakers expressed support.

But the legislator who may have the most say over the tax's future, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd Jr., R-Plant City, was not there. He had left the meeting by then to tour Hope Lodge, a center on the University of South Florida campus that provides support to families of patients at the Moffitt Cancer Center. He could not be reached for comment later.

Byrd is an outspoken critic of taxes, but he supports health care initiatives such as expanded prescription drug coverage and Alzheimer's research. Hillsborough leaders are nervous about how Byrd will react to a proposal to not only extend the half-cent tax, but to remove an existing "sunset" provision.

If the provision is removed, the tax would remain indefinitely and the uncertainty of every few years would disappear.

"The community really needs to make a commitment to the plan," said Dena Leavengood, who heads the Hillsborough Health Care Coalition. She handed out fliers in support of the tax that said: "Bottom line: Community wants more, not less."

No vote was taken on the tax Friday. State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said senators would wait for a signal from Byrd before advancing a bill to continue the tax. That strategy is intended to focus the pro-tax forces on Byrd, while sparing senators the burden of embracing a tax that may have no chance of passing.

The half-penny tax raises $80-million to $90-million a year and is used to leverage precious health care dollars from the federal government. Leavengood said the levy is needed now more than ever because of expected cuts in state health care programs.

Leavengood was among dozens of people pleading for help and state money, mostly for social services and schools, at an all-day hearing.

Phoenix House, a drug treatment program, asked for $281,000 to treat 20 more drug abusers who have been placed on probation by the courts.

USF requested $5-million for a music building, and residents of northwest Hillsborough want $2.4-million to more than double the size of a planned 10,000-square-foot community library.

Gulf Coast Community Care of Clearwater asked for continued support of a $750,000 grant to help delinquent parents learn skills and get jobs so they can pay child support. The program was started in 1995, enjoys broad support and serves Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough.

But the program is not in Gov. Jeb Bush's proposed budget, so the race is on by advocates to get a financial foothold in the Senate or House budget before the legislative session gets under way on March 4.

"We're facing an uphill climb this year. The state is in a terrible financial crunch," said Harvey Landress, Gulf Coast's vice president for planning. "A lot of good programs are being put on the chopping block."

Many speakers acknowledged the budget pressures facing the state, but Lee noted that one test of political effectiveness is in helping local constituents.

"We all have to go home," Lee said.

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