Don’t cut local budgets. Preserve Medicaid money for the elderly and the poor. Lessen regulations (on water consumption, on virtual schooling, on permissible uses of Medicaid dollars), increase regulation (on pill mills, on texting while driving), tax more smartly (especially internet taxes). And again: keep the dollars flowing.
Local elected officials who usually sit at the dais in the chambers of the Government Services Building in Bunnell on Wednesday yielded their seats to two men considered slightly higher in the region’s political pecking order: State Sen. John Thrasher and Fred Costello, the long-time mayor of Ormond Beach elected to the State House in November. The two men sat there for an hour and a half listening to pitch after plea from county and agency officials, returning little by way of assurances beyond the occasional politeness and frequent condescension (“good job”).
Flagler County’s legislative delegation traditionally makes a local appearance before the legislative session meets in January. It gives local officials and the public a chance to outline their legislative wish lists. It gives the legislators a chance to look like good listeners, without having to make promises. Legislators who show up, anyway: Rep. Bill Proctor, the St. Augustine Republican, who seemed to be everywhere during his reelection campaign, was absent. So was Sen. Tony Hill of Jacksonville, one of the last remaining Democrats in Tallahassee.
Thrasher and Costello sat back at the dais and listened to a little over a dozen people make their pitch, starting with County Commission Chairman Alan Peterson. In many cases the three- to five-minute pitching sessions were earnest sum ups of local agencies’ needs, usually financial, and occasional policy requests. “Please do not put any arbitrary caps on our local tax rates,” was Peterson’s plea on that score. Jon Netts, the Palm Coast mayor, in one of the shorter speeches to the two men, asked for the state to lighten its hand on water consumption rules (“Florida’s got plenty of land,” he said, “what we don’t have is plenty of water”).
Janet Valentine, the school superintendent, tried to go for the pragmatic approach–not a known strength of legislators in Tallahassee, especially not in education–when she reminded Thrasher and Costello that seemingly minor changes to class-size rules could have big financial impacts locally, such as adding certain academic subjects to the “core” list of subjects that fall under the class-size rule. She asked for the elimination of rules that prevent smaller virtual school franchises from getting reimbursed at the same rate as Florida Virtual School, the state’s original creation. Valentine also asked the legislators to be reasonable on merit pay. That was an allusion to last year’s so-called Senate Bill 6, an attempt to undermine the teachers’ unions by tying merit pay to standardized test scores, among other measures. The Obama administration’s “race to the top” program does something similar, with less harm to the unions. Local teachers have “embraced” race to the top, Valentine said, so if Tallahassee is preparing to reintroduce another version of Senate Bill 6–which it is–the superintendent asked that it at least be closely aligned with race to the top.
The meeting lent itself to a little theater, too, as when School Board member Colleen Conklin, who mulled over a run against Thrasher last fall and considers him flatly unsympathetic to public education, appeared before him to plead for “legislative breathing room in regard to class size.” Thrasher would have none of it: “To suggest that we could do something statutorily, it’s going to be tough, because it’s in the constitution,” he said.
“Whatever it’s going to take to fund it we’re going to have to fund it,” he said.
“Then I like the second part of what you just said,” Conklin said.
“Well, you may not like the second part of what I just said because where is it going to come from?”
In two breaths, Thrasher was telling Conklin that the state Constitution left the Legislature no room but to fund the class-size amendment, yet the Legislature might not have the money to do it anyway without taking it from other critical needs, likely within education. That had been another one of Conklin’s pleas: don’t rob Peter to pay Paul. Tharsher was suggesting that Peter and Paul would get robbed.
Other highlights: Helen Ridley of Elder Source, which helps seniors stay in their homes as long as possible. Florida spends 30 percent of its $20 billion medicaid budget on nursing homes. “What I’m proposing is a saving to the state Legislature,” Ridley said, “because if you use community care for the elderly, which are some of the funds that we use here in Flagler County, we can provide the basic things that seniors need to stay in their homes and to age in place, where most seniors want to be. We can provide meals on wheels, we can provide light housekeeping, we can provide personal care, we can do all of the things that will delay premature nursing home admissions. A nursing home costs $70,000 a year. Our program is $6,500. The savings per person is about $65,000 per person. With about 20,000 people on our waiting list, you can see where the impact comes in.”
It was the fourth time Thrasher was hearing the same speech. “I could give it,” he quipped when Ridley was done.
Flagler Beach City Commissioner Jane Mealy spoke of her city being in the sixth of 21 steps in a beach re-nourishment program: the state, she urged, should ensure that the program and the money continue. She noted that the Flagler Beach Pier, the lifeblood of the city’s tourism industry, depends on outside support to afford its insurance, though “if it blows away or it falls in, we’re done.”
Patrick Johnson, director of the Flagler County Health Department, in another plea for preservation of Medicaid funding (which is certain to be cut next year) reminded the legislators of what it paid for in Flagler alone in 2009: 16,000 health visits at the department, 19,000 shots, and the health costs of 40 percent of the 899 births in the county.
Chet Bell of the Stuart-Marchman-Act mental health and addiction rehab facility noted that $145,000 in state money that underwrites detox services in Flagler County are at risk. “We don’t want to lose those dollars,” Bell said.
At no point in the 90-minute session did either Thrasher or Costello take notes.