Ninety-six-year-old Lucille Reed had just spent several moments detailing her personal benefit from Florida's spending on elderly services.
Home assistance programs run by Community Aging and Retirement Services help low-income seniors like Reed stay in their homes instead of having to move to the more costly alternative — a nursing home.
Three days a week, Reed told state legislators, aides assist her with a shower, perhaps prepare breakfast or just coffee, make the bed and "do anything I'm unable to do that particular day.'' They bring food for the week on Tuesdays. On Thursdays, it's light housekeeping of her apartment and picking up her prescription medication.
Then Reed offered up a self-assessment.
"I'm getting a little dim on my hearing. Some of you, I haven't heard a word you said.''
It brought a big laugh. But, likewise, you had to wonder about the listening skills of Pasco's legislative delegation.
Friday morning at their annual meeting in New Port Richey, the legislators heard from Nick Bliesner, the president of the junior class at St. Leo University, who fears additional cuts to the tuition program that assists Florida's students attending private colleges and universities.
A high school sophomore named Amber credited the New Port Richey Marine Institute, the alternative school for troubled teenagers, with teaching her how to respect others and to better her academic performance. She wants to complete her GED and enroll in the military.
"This is our second chance to better ourselves,'' the teenager said. "If we don't make it there, we could end up in jail.''
But, she, and Bliesner and Reed all heard the same retort:
It could have been worse.
"I'm happy to report your cut is significantly less than what everybody else got hit with,'' Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chair of the Senate appropriations committee overseeing juvenile justice spending, told Amber.
Ditto for Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Dunedin, the Legislature's oldest member at age 76. He informed Reed the cut to elderly services was only 1 percent.
Happy to report? This is what it has come to. Our elected representatives are happy to report that others are doing worse. They've already whacked, in the words of Crist, the low-hanging fruit and now need help setting priorities for additional cuts. A down economy and falling sales and real estate tax collections meant a $4-billion budget reduction in spring 2008, a $2.3-billion cut in the just concluded special session and a projected $3.5-billion shortfall in the fiscal year beginning July 1. That is the spending plan that will be mapped out this spring.
"There are going to be more cuts,'' said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.
And there are no sacred cows. Even the typical no-new-tax pledge is out the window. Raising the state excise tax on cigarettes drew endorsements from Anderson and Fasano.
Talk about low-hanging fruit. The cigarette tax is a no-brainer. It is a user fee that generates higher revenue for the state, reduces the likelihood of teenagers becoming smokers, and curbs future health-care spending on lung diseases. It terms of decision-making ease, a higher cigarette tax should rank right up there with raising the fine for speeding tickets.
But what's missing is leadership. Legislators should stop talking about tax breaks for ostrich feed, stadium luxury boxes, and lap dances (Nobody mentioned those items Friday, they just usually pop up during election time.) and put a critical eye on Florida's archaic and exemption-riddled sales tax system.
You would think they should be willing to do so because of their own personal experiences. Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, benefitted from the same tuition assistance program that Bliesner defended. The son of Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs, went to the Red Apple School for the developmentally disabled.
Instead, we hear Nehr tell Red Apple founder David Neal that legislators would "do everything possible to minimize the hurt.''
Lucille Reed wasn't the only one in the room with a deaf ear.