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    A Times Editorial

    State budget squeezes the poor

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001

    Legislative leaders in Tallahassee were downright gleeful last week over the final state budget.

    "By golly, I'm proud of it," House Speaker Tom Feeney boasted.

    "I think we can all claim victory," chimed in Senate Budget Committee Chairman Jim Horne.

    However, advocates for Florida's poor are not feeling nearly so buoyant -- and for good reason. While lawmakers restored most of the major cuts advocates had been fearing, low-income Floridians not only made few measurable gains this session but suffered a series of setbacks that could end up making their lives harder than they already are.

    "We were engaged all session in damage control," Karen Woodall, a lobbyist for the National Association of Social Workers, told the Times. "Most of our energy was spent just trying to keep things from moving backward. I personally believe that was by legislative design."

    To be sure, money was tighter this year, thanks in large measure to a slowing economy and a burgeoning Medicaid budget. But Gov. Jeb Bush and state leaders bear more than a little blame for the fiscal austerity. Tax cuts have driven state coffers down by more than $1.6-billion over the last two years alone -- in line with Bush's pledge of $6.1-billion in tax relief by 2003. And though most of the $1-billion Medicaid "shortfall" was really a growth in enrollment -- not a true deficit -- some of those new enrollees are former welfare-to-work participants the state had previously, and illegally, kept off Medicaid.

    With some creative maneuvers, including tapping a tobacco-settlement fund meant only for children and elder program enhancements, lawmakers were able to spare the poor the direct rollback in eligibility and benefits threatened earlier in the session. Gone are the proposed cuts in the program that provide eyeglasses and hearing aids to low-income elderly, as well as the cuts in payments to doctors who treat the poor under Medipass.

    But the surviving cuts mean, among other things, that thousands more poor Floridians will be routed into HMOs at the same time they receive less, if any, counseling to help sort out their coverage options. The push into managed care -- with the industry's spotty record in Florida of market pull-outs and benefit contractions -- is worrisome.

    "In an effort to cater to the powerful HMO lobby, the Legislature is shifting many more vulnerable people into a failing industry, with no real evidence the state will save any money," said Woodall. "It makes no sense."

    Health care is not the only area in which the poor can expect to feel more than their share of the squeeze. Under bills on their way to Gov. Bush, welfare-to-work parents, though not rich parents, would face stricter financial penalties when their children skip school, and more workers injured on the job could fall into poverty under new attorney-fee limits in workers' compensation cases.

    There are some bright spots: more money for the homeless and extra protection from utility cutoffs for the medically needy, to name just two. But they are isolated gains in a year when low-income Floridians, overall, lost ground. The outcome of the budget battle may indeed be a "victory" for some -- just not the poor.

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