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Critical legislation drowning in dogma

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 27, 2003

There comes a time when you have to say enough.

This is it.

This is the moment when the shrill rhetoric about no new state taxes must stop. This is the moment when you stand up and say that there are some things government should be responsible for, no matter what political party you subscribe to.

Things like the universities and local school districts, where officials are howling about the spending cuts.

Or the protection of children. We lost two more this month in South Florida, by the way. They were killed, allegedly by their foster parents, people who had been approved by state caseworkers.

And then there's the program I've been writing about, the Medically Needy program, a back-up health insurance plan for the old and the poor. It is supposed to be cut back dramatically Thursday, but public pressure has forced the Legislature to seriously consider extending it to July.

But that doesn't mean the Medically Needy program has been saved. The bill has gotten sidetracked as the result of wrangling over other health issues. Even assuming funds are found to pay for the program for the next two months, what happens in the coming year to this medical safety net for 27,000 of the state's poor and old is anybody's guess.

In the past couple of weeks, as I wrote about the Medically Needy program, I heard repeatedly from patients who sounded stunned, as if they'd been clubbed over the head. How could the Legislature do this to me, they asked.

To understand, you have to know a bit about the Florida Legislature.

Both houses of the Legislature are so dominated by Republicans that the Democrats are irrelevant. But the House is the political equivalent of a bunch of religious fundamentalists, who wouldn't approve a tax to keep a roof over your grandmother's head, even. (Their own grandmother's head would be another story.)

The Senate now plays the role Democrats once did, as moderates not afraid of raising taxes to pay for necessary government functions.

The two houses are at utter odds.

I don't think any of these men and women in the Legislature intentionally want to hurt the medically needy or anybody else. But the lawmakers live in a hothouse, doing nothing but breathing in each other's sloganeering. They often don't know the implication of their votes. And they think you want them to refuse all taxes - since that was the platform you elected them on.

They have a point. You did fall for the rhetoric. We all did. Whatever else can be said of the Republican Party, its practitioners are brilliant campaigners, terrific promoters of the no-taxes message. They have been so successful in Florida (and elsewhere) that they have a stranglehold on the political debate. Whoever would vote for a candidate who vowed to raise your taxes, anyway?

But the Republicans have been too successful. There comes a point when nothing is left to cut. This is what the moderates in the Senate - Republicans, remember! - have been saying and the fundamentalists in the House have been ignoring.

You'd think the fundamentalists would know better. Surely some of them are pragmatic enough to realize they now look as though they are so wrapped up in their dogma that they are incapable of governing.

And surely some of the voters who once fell for the dogma see now that matters have gone too far.

I heard from a man last week who wanted the names of all the lawmakers who voted against the Medically Needy program, so he could vote them out next time. You can find them all at the Legislature's Web site, www.legis.state.fl.us/

Write them a letter. Send them an e-mail. Call them on the phone. Tell them in one word.

Tell them enough.

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