Legislature is leaving poor Floridians without a safety net, critics say

From outside an Orlando Starbucks, 45-year-old Rudy Roberts powers up his laptop computer and uses the free wireless Internet to apply for retail jobs.

Roberts, who has been out of work since the Kmart he managed closed in 2009, relies on $400 a week in state unemployment benefits — money that he says stopped coming in September because of a bureaucratic hiccup. He applies for five jobs each week, he says, to comply with a requirement passed by the Florida Legislature.

"I understand why (lawmakers) want you to get out and apply," said Roberts, who traveled by bus from Orlando to Tallahassee last week to protest Medicaid cuts. "But I don't think they understand how difficult it really is."

While Florida's economy has shown signs of improvement in recent months, the prospects remain bleak for many of the state's most disadvantaged residents. And there is concern that things may only get worse.

The Republican-led Legislature passed a series of sweeping changes last year and is considering additional changes in 2012 that lawmakers say protect taxpayer dollars, wean residents off government assistance and position businesses to reignite Florida's dormant economy.

Critics like Dorene Barker, legislative director with Florida Legal Services, say the measures amount to an "unprecedented attack on the poor" — from requiring cash welfare recipients to first pass a drug test, to diverting Medicaid patients into managed care, to making it harder for people like Roberts to keep their unemployment benefits.

Barker's group, which provides legal help for the poor, is tracking about 300 bills that have the potential to impact the state's most needy, she said.

From year to year, "the number is pretty stable," she said. "It's just the severity of the issues, and the impact … that's what has changed the most."

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Lawmakers last year made extensive adjustments to the way unemployed workers receive benefits. The changes, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, require welfare recipients to file an online report documenting their job search, shorten the window people can receive benefits by a minimum of three weeks, and make it easier for the state to deny claims based on potential misconduct. The result? Sixty-five percent of claims for unemployment benefits were denied within the first three months.

Another law required that cash welfare recipients pay for and pass a $30 drug test before they could receive benefits. A federal judge temporarily banned the practice as an "unreasonable search and seizure" in October.

This year, lawmakers are pushing a measure that would ban people convicted of a drug crime from accessing temporary cash assistance or food stamps and another that would prohibit people from using food stamps from buying junk food.

The drug crime bill would allow people to resume benefits once they have completed an addiction class. The bill has some traction in the Senate and has passed one committee in the House.

"We are not trying to do anything in particular to the poor other than make sure the tax dollars that go to programs that help the poor go exactly where they're supposed to go," said sponsor Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Lecanto, who said food stamps helped provide for his family when he was first out of the military and working in pest control. "I'm living proof that assistance like that is a hand up, not a handout."

The junk food bill, sponsored by Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, was featured last week during a segment on Fox News.

"We certainly want to be helpful, but I think it strains the patience of the taxpayer to pay for two packages of Oreos and a six-pack of Coke," Storms said on Fox. "What we're saying is we have limited resources; we want to stretch the dollar as much as possible."

Other bills appear innocuous but could have dire consequences for poorer Floridians, said Karen Woodall, interim director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, a group that focuses on policies that impact low-income families. Case in point, she says: a plan to privatize portions of Medicaid, the state-managed health care system for low-income individuals and families.

Health care advocates, armed with data and horror stories from a controversial five-year pilot plan, say private insurance companies have systematically denied care to the state's poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

Yet the plan is proceeding.

The state is scheduled to start shifting Medicaid beneficiaries — elderly people first — into privatized managed-care programs by January 2013.

New proposals would deepen cuts. Scott wants to cut Medicaid spending by nearly 10 percent this year to free up funds for education, and both the House and Senate propose sharp reductions in Medicaid contributions to area hospitals.

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To Republican lawmakers, the changes are designed to encourage self-responsibility, retain help for the Floridians who need assistance most and best deploy the state's limited financial resources.

Rather than raise taxes to fund a safety net, the best solution is to remove barriers and obstacles for private businesses, which in turn can yield sustained job growth, says Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota.

Since Scott took office in 2011, the state has added about 130,000 jobs. More than 900,000 people remain without work.

"If you tax businesses more during a down economy when they're struggling already, they're going to close their doors," said Holder, who owns a small real estate company and sponsored last year's unemployment bill.

Holder introduced a bill this year that would change the name of the unemployment program to "re-employment assistance."

"We want to send a message to unemployed Floridians that we are going to give them the resources they need to find employment," he said.

Critics cry hypocrisy.

Woodall said the state spends "$24.7 million per year in payouts to sports facilities."

"Once you get a contract, it's 30 years, no begging required," she said. "Yet, we beg for people to keep their eyeglasses or their hearing aids every year."

Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, introduced a bill this year to close loopholes in the corporate income tax and another that would ban businesses from discriminating against the unemployed.

Both proposals have been ignored by the Republican majorities.

"I believe that's what happens when you have a Legislature where there's not a balance as far as the members of both parties," she said.

In the meantime, Rudy Roberts plans keep submitting resumes.

Homeless and without a cell phone, he's staying with friends, scrounging up $80 per month to treat his diabetes and bone degeneration at a public clinic.

"That's my story, but it's not just me," he said. "We have so many people in desperate need."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Legislature is leaving poor Floridians without a safety net, critics say 02/11/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 11, 2012 9:20pm]

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