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Hernando legislators warn of cutbacks ahead

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County's state lawmakers listened for three hours Tuesday as constituents asked for help on topics from educational spending to managed health care.

The undercurrent of the annual legislative delegation meeting was made clear after Teresa Ashcroft spoke glowingly of the need to preserve the guardian ad litem program.

She spoke of the 100-plus people who volunteered to be advocates in court for youngsters, the 539 children the program helped last year, and the importance of finding a permanent home for the program's young charges.

Ashcroft only asked to maintain the state funding level because "any cuts would affect the representation of our children.''

But state Sen. Mike Fasano could not reassure her. The reality, he said, is that "there are going to be cuts'' because the state is facing a nearly $4 billion budget deficit.

"I just wanted you to be prepared,'' he said, in a warning that extended to everyone in the audience.

More than 30 people spoke about maintaining or increasing funds, asking for legislation to fix glitches in existing laws, and investigations into problems citizens have with local agencies, such as Spring Hill Fire Rescue and the county Animal Services.

Members of the delegation — Rep. Robert Schenck, Fasano, Sen. Paula Dockery and Rep. Jimmie T. Smith, all Republicans — listened and asked questions throughout the speakers' presentations.

They saw a wide mix, including a dramatic demonstration by the Healthy Families organization of shaken baby syndrome. The group was showing what sometimes happens when inexperienced parents try to cope with the stresses of raising a baby.

They also saw emotional presentations from several men who argued something should be done to stop women and children from filing false charges of domestic violence against men.

The city of Brooksville asked for a specific change in the law concerning performance bonds that would keep any other city from facing the legal mess Brooksville does over the bankruptcy of the original developers of Southern Hills.

The developer was supposed to build $25 million in infrastructure improvements, but when the bottom fell out of the housing market and the developers went under financially, it is unclear how the city will make good on those water, sewer and road promises, officials said.

County Commissioner John Druzbick asked for continued legislative support in the county's efforts to attract prospective businesses and expand existing ones.

Others pitched for help with loosening rules on how to spend impact fees, cutting red tape for taxi and limousine services that criss-cross the state, enacting an Arizona-style immigration law and changing the state's anti-bullying law so that bureaucracy doesn't keep cases of bullying from being investigated.

Mark Barry of ARC Nature Coast expressed concern about how changes in the health care system could affect the developmentally disabled.

"I also have great concerns about managed care,'' Fasano said. "It would be devastating to those who need services.''

But Schenck, who is among those working on health care change legislation, said managed care would be included but that there would be a transition time. He said the intent was not to hurt those who need help.

Pasco-Hernando Community College president Kathy Johnson told the delegation that while enrollment rises, reimbursements fall for those in the state college and community college system.

"We certainly continue to do more with less,'' she said, but she asked for the lawmakers' support.

"This year's budget is a lot more ugly than last year's,'' Schenck responded.

Funding is also critical to the state's youngest citizens, argued James Farrelly, executive director for the Early Learning Coalition for Hernando and Pasco.

"High quality will not be achieved if the per-child funding is decreased,'' he said.

Tracy Echols of the Hernando Youth Initiative and county Education Foundation, asked legislators to keep their eyes on what is really important. Education prevents much more expensive problems down the road making it the most efficient way to spend the state's limited resources.

"Hernando County wants you to vote for our kids,'' she said. "Any vote for education is a vote for our kids.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando legislators warn of cutbacks ahead 01/18/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 8:23pm]
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