TAMPA — A lawsuit challenging the federal health care legislation provoked the most conflict during a forum Friday for Florida's attorney general candidates.
Republican candidates Holly Bensen and Jeff Kottkamp pledged to continue the lawsuit filed by current Attorney General Bill McCollum against the federal government.
"Access to health insurance is a privilege and personal responsibility," not a right, Benson said.
McCollum's suit claims the health care reform rules violate the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution by forcing people to buy health care from a private company or pay a tax or fine.
There are problems with the country's health care system, Benson said, but the new law doesn't solve those problems and will make them worse by adding 1.7 million to people to the Medicaid program, sinking it.
"Unlimited access to nothing is still nothing," she said.
The legislation, she said, is unconstitutional.
"You're wrong," Democratic candidate Dan Gelber told Benson. It's a "moral stain," he said, that 4 million Floridians don't have health care coverage.
"Health care should be a right, not a privilege," he argued.
And the legislation doesn't violate the commerce clause, he said, noting that workers now give up a portion of their paychecks to Medicare.
"It's a frivolous lawsuit politicizing the Attorney General's Office, and the moment I am attorney general, I will recede from it," he said. "We need to provide health care to people in Florida, and that's that."
Democratic candidate Dave Aronberg agreed, and said Florida's attorney general used to put more emphasis on consumer protection, such as suing tobacco companies and businesses that sold flawed tires. "If we don't de-politicize this office, it will continue to be used as a plaything for partisan politics by people who want to run for the next office," Aronberg said.
Kottkamp countered that the Constitution does not spell out a right to health care.
"This lawsuit's not about health care. This lawsuit's about freedom," he said. "Are we as a people going to draw a line in the sand with the federal government and say enough is enough? We're tired of you getting further and further and further into our daily lives. That's what's at stake here. It's not about health care."
Regarding an Arizona-style immigration law for Florida, Kottkamp said that anyone who opposes the rule doesn't understand Arizona's problem. "They have a violent drug war spilling across their borders," he said.
In Florida, he said, up to 30 percent of the inmate population in the largest cities is made up of illegal immigrants. Floridians pay millions of dollars every year to jail and provide health care to illegal immigrants, he said.
"If I was the attorney general, I would sue the federal government and get every penny of your money back," he said. "If they're not going to secure the border, they should at least pay for the cost we're incurring by their failure to do so."
Aronberg said he doesn't see how the Arizona law can be enforced without racial profiling. He said a better approach is to check the immigration status only of people who have actually been arrested.
Gelber said police should not have the "responsibility of checking people's papers. That's just not what we do in this country."
Instead, he said, felons who aren't in the country legally should be deported after they serve their sentences.
Candidate Jim Lewis, who is running with no party affiliation, said he wouldn't back an Arizona-style immigration law for Florida, and called McCollum's lawsuit a waste of money.
In his opening remarks, he said one of Florida's biggest problems is that it has too many lawsuits. "We have 90,000 lawyers in this state," he said, pointing out that 20 years ago Florida had five law schools and now it has 11.
"They're pumpin' 'em out like cockroaches," Lewis said.
The Tampa Tiger Bay event drew all of the candidates in the race except for Republican Pam Bondi, whose campaign said she had a scheduling conflict.