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Lawmakers start cutting process

A nickel here, a dime there and a lot of boasting about what was spared in the face of a money crisis.

By STEVE BOUSQUET

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 24, 2001


A nickel here, a dime there and a lot of boasting about what was spared in the face of a money crisis.

TALLAHASSEE -- Mamie Williams of Tampa rode all night in a van to make sure Florida's budget-cutting lawmakers didn't harm her nursing home patients.

Wearing purple T-shirts emblazoned with the yellow logo of their union, Williams and six co-workers at University Village Nursing Center made it to the Capitol Tuesday after an all-night drive that began at 2 a.m. It turned out senators had already fixed the problem by using $28-million from Florida's big tobacco settlement to avoid a delay in new nursing home workers starting in January.

"We need more staff. That way, I can do better-quality care," said Williams, who said she provides "restorative" care, such as short walks, for as many as 15 patients at a time. "Sometimes, they just want a little something."

Restorative is an apt word for what's happening at the Capitol as senators, weary of downbeat talk of cuts, cuts, cuts, are suddenly congratulating themselves for having "restored" budget cuts they made on paper last week. Sock drawers of money are magically opening, and politicians are eager to appear charitable in the face of the state's worst budget crisis in a decade.

"It could have been a lot worse," said Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, the sponsor of the amendment to bring nursing homes back to where they were before the budget imploded. But even Silver said he shuddered to think where the state would be if not for the multibillion-dollar tobacco settlement forged by former Gov. Lawton Chiles.

It has come to this: Silver had his staff produce a list of programs that survived for the rest of this year, headed "What We Didn't Cut."

That improved nursing home staffing ratios were even considered for a cut shows how desperate lawmakers are to stop the flood of red ink in Tallahassee. For this was the crowning achievement of the 2001 Legislature, the result of months of painstaking negotiations among trial lawyers, nursing home owners, business lobbies and retiree groups.

The higher staffing ratios require homes to give 2.3 hours of direct care to each patient daily. Nursing homes are in a furious competitive fight to recruit and train entry-level certified nursing assistants, in some cases for $7 an hour, to provide basic care to patients.

After nine years on the job, Williams earns $10.74 an hour and is taking night courses to become a registered nurse. When the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to pay for higher staffing ratios, she thought she had made her point.

"It's not an easy job, and you have to love your work," Williams said as union leaders passed out statements praising the Senate for "avoiding a serious mistake."

Even without their colorful T-shirts, Williams and her friends in Service Employees International Local 1199 would have stood out Tuesday.

In the second day of a two-week special session on budget cuts, working-class Floridians such as Williams are rarely seen. The Capitol is a sea of dark suits, shiny shoes and quietly chirping cell phones, far beyond the reach, geographically and financially, of many Floridians.

"Let me tell you what we didn't cut," said Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg, who manages the Senate's shrinking public safety budget, which slashes drug treatment programs for state prison inmates and requires probation officers to manage bigger case loads. "We didn't cut prison beds. We didn't cut correctional officers. We didn't shorten any time that prisoners will be spending in prison."

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