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How Florida lawmakers 'nudge' to help their constituents

The calls and e-mails come to state lawmakers every day.

A woman who says her car was wrongfully repossessed. A mother whose well needs $1,600 in repairs she can't afford. A couple trying to get their home mortgage modified so they avoid foreclosure.

In difficult times, down-on-their-luck Floridians turn to their elected officials as a means of last resort.

And often, simply asking "Can you help?" works.

"Sometimes things get stuck in the process," said Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, "and it just takes a little nudge from us to get things moving again."

Brandes would know. His office recently helped a man with a deadly liver disease secure money for a transplant from the Department of Children and Families.

The St. Petersburg man, who did not wish to be identified, couldn't get through to the agency without Brandes' help. Now he's in line for the procedure and waits to be called with a packed bag at his door. "A miracle like this will not be forgotten," he wrote Brandes.

The St. Petersburg Times contacted members of the Pinellas and Hillsborough counties' legislative delegations for more stories of helping out a struggling electorate. Some elected officials didn't want to sound braggy. Others claimed constituent confidentiality. Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, couldn't think of a happy tale to share.

"For the most part they're sad stories," she said. "It's not a very fun time for people in the state."

• • •

The recession means most calls are about food stamps, child support, Medicaid and unemployment compensation.

When a Haitian janitor lost his job at the TradeWinds resort and was rejected for unemployment benefits, David Flintom, a customer-service-specialist-turned-employee of Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, took on his case.

He connected the man with an Agency for Workforce Innovation employee who spoke Creole. He won the appeal.

"Looks like he's going to get all his back payments from July until now," Flintom wrote in a December e-mail to Kriseman. "Sometimes things work out for the little guy, and that's pretty … cool."

• • •

Republican Sen. Mike Fasano, who often talks about fighting for the "little guy and gal," says 15 to 20 people needing help reach him every day — including the mom who needs to get her well fixed to have water and the couple who asked Fasano to put in a good word for them with a bank considering their mortgage modification.

That request seemed out of his league, Fasano said, but he wrote the bank's chairman anyway. About a month later, Tony and Gail Weber are satisfied with their new monthly payments after securing a loan.

"With his input, it really made a big difference," Tony Weber said.

Fasano is hopeful the economy will pick up for the Pinellas and Pasco residents he represents, but his e-mails indicate things are just getting worse.

"You wish you had a pot of money," he said."

• • •

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, spent a chunk of her summer helping a Tampa business renew its license. It may sound like a simple task, but leaders of A-Ability Medical Equipment quickly felt pinned against a bureaucratic wall.

The Agency for Health Care Administration would not accept its renewal application because the owners had recently swapped their majority-minority shares of the company. Agency employees wanted A-Ability to submit the same paperwork required of a new company, though it has been in business since 1985 and nothing else had changed.

"Florida statutes are written so there's no provision for a situation that occurred with our company," said Alison Weber, the owner's daughter and company treasurer and secretary. "They (AHCA) weren't flexible because they have to follow Florida statutes."

Storms arranged a meeting with AHCA representatives in Tampa and eventually met with AHCA Secretary Elizabeth Dudek and Hayden Dempsey, Gov. Rick Scott's top lobbyist. She persuaded them to bend and grant the company's license.

"It sure does seem like a lot of heavy lifting just to keep these guys in business," Storms said. "We are supposed to be all about jobs right now."

Weber would not have been able to work out a compromise without Storms, she said. "We were lucky she was on our side and in our corner," she said.

• • •

Last summer, Tara Simpson left her Pinellas Park apartment for a grocery run, but didn't see the black Dodge Durango she bought the year before. The company that sold her the vehicle repossessed it, insisting she owed about $4,000. She missed the last payment, she said, but knew she did not owe that much on the $4,500 vehicle.

Her grandmother urged her to call Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, whose secretary listened and asked Simpson, 33, to fax proof of payments. She got her car back in three days.

"I almost passed out," Simpson said. "I really didn't think that even his personnel would be that down to earth and would even stick their neck out to help somebody off the street."

• • •

Sometimes lawmakers' calls are life or death, or thousands of dollars are at stake. But it's not always so intense — people want answers about their Apple gear, too.

A Dade City man e-mailed Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, after hearing state law required him to renew his iPad contract in an Apple store. Why would the Legislature do this? he asked. He didn't want to make the drive.

The request was a "little out there," said Shayra Rosario, Harrison's district secretary, but she called the manager of the Apple location in International Plaza. He told her there was no such law and the man could renew his contract online.

"I wasn't thinking that was something that would pop through the office," Rosario said, "but it was easy to handle."

Katie Sanders can be reached at (850)224-7263 or ksanders@sptimes.com.

How Florida lawmakers 'nudge' to help their constituents 07/18/11 [Last modified: Monday, July 18, 2011 11:21pm]
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