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Tallahassee takes it out on the little guy

By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2001


Why reporters even bother to cover the Florida Legislature is a puzzle.

Why reporters even bother to cover the Florida Legislature is a puzzle.

They know what the story will be before it gets told. It's the same story every year.

The Legislature cuts the budget.

The only difference this year is that it's cutting more deeply than in years previous.

Otherwise, the Legislature's annual act of magnificent indifference holds true.

The people hurt the most are those who are one paycheck from the street or on the street already, people who are hurting in ways that a small-minded, well-groomed politician can never imagine.

The Legislature is cutting in half the funds for poor kids needing liver transplants and cardiac care.

It's taking away vision, hearing and dental care coverage for thousands of other people, and prescription drug payments for the elderly.

It has done everything but take every poor person it can get its hands on, pick them up, turn them upside down and see how much change falls out of their pockets.

When the cuts take effect, people in need will have no place to go.

So they will go looking for charity.

They will go to places like the St. Petersburg Free Clinic.

I visited the clinic Wednesday. It offers medical care, food, a place to sleep and financial help, even tokens to ride the bus to get to work or to look for work.

It does all this on a little more than $1-million a year. But the people who work here are very proud that they get no government funding.

They don't want the vagaries of government budgets to affect what they do.

"Every time there are budget cuts, we don't have to panic," said Rosalyn Hunter, who runs the clinic's food programs.

Still, they're bracing themselves at the Free Clinic. They know this for sure: When agencies that lose state money turn away people, the people will come to the clinic.

"They cut the dollars to solve the problems," said Jane Egbert, executive director of the clinic. "But they didn't solve the problems."

The clinic is already under pressure from more and more people seeking help, thanks to the recession. People are calling from as far away as Clearwater and Tarpon Springs. The needs are bedrock and basic.

"The greatest increase is in people needing help with utility bills and rent -- and mortgages," Egbert said.

Stories like that of the Free Clinic do not register in Tallahassee. Bigger issues are at stake, issues that underscore the contempt some in the Legislature have for a fair chunk of Florida's people.

The budget battle was really over the intangibles tax, the tax on stocks and bonds.

Not many of the Free Clinic's customers would be particularly interested. They're short in the portfolio department.

The Senate wanted to hold off on a planned cut in the tax. The House didn't.

The budget bill that was passed didn't repeal the intangibles tax break. It just includes these awful cuts.

Senate President John McKay complained after the budget was passed that the House had no regard for social services. That he would say so is laughable. McKay was the power behind the budget that was passed. He is responsible. House Speaker Tom Feeney and those who voted for the bill are also responsible.

With their votes, they change the lives of people they will never see, people who have no lobbyist, people who hardly have a chance.

I would say McKay amd Feeney should pay a visit to the Free Clinic, but I know better.

- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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