Florida is at a crossroads. While families worry over kitchen-table budgets and businesses struggle to stay afloat, state government is struggling to keep vital services going for our most vulnerable Florida neighbors.
Only bold action by Florida's elected officials can shield our most vulnerable neighbors from this fiscal storm. In August 2008, AARP and the Florida Coalition for Children joined a broad range of other organizations calling for bold action through Florida's People, Florida's Promise (www.floridas people.org).
Yet Florida's elected leaders are still responding to this historic crisis with a stale formula of budget cuts. Sadly, current plans target our most vulnerable neighbors, who will be hit first and hardest.
At risk are abused and neglected children, frail older people in nursing homes, courageous Floridians fighting to overcome disabilities, and hundreds of front-line workers caring for children, elders and the disabled.
Not long ago, daily media carried terrible stories about the care of abused and neglected children. The state said, "Let's give the job to local communities." Lawmakers increased funding modestly and got a key federal waiver, giving communities the freedom to use funds to keep families out of the legal system, protect children and keep families intact.
By any measure, it has been a success. Adoptions have more than doubled, from 1,500 to more than 3,600 annually. Some 30,000 children have been diverted from foster care. Case- loads are down, letting front-line workers have a real chance of success at these difficult jobs.
These gains are now at risk. Florida organizations caring for abused and neglected children already took $24.4-million in cuts, including a 15 percent reduction in administrative costs. Now lawmakers are considering even deeper cuts.
At the other end of the age scale, nursing homes could face some of the harshest cuts under discussion. These cuts could mean the difference between a nursing home staffer placing a plate of food in front of a frail elderly resident and moving on to the next resident, or being able to help that elderly resident actually eat, gain strength and perhaps return home. Imagine your grandmother or grandfather sitting hungry and helpless in front of food he or she is unable to eat.
Particularly frustrating are cuts that end up costing, not saving, tax dollars. Cuts to Florida's landmark Community Care for the Elderly program mean that many older people will lose their battles to remain in their homes. Taxpayers then will pay up to 15 times more to care for those elders in nursing homes.
It is time for our leaders to act boldly. Yes, we can create efficiencies in government, but Florida should have considered new revenues in the current special session and must do so in the regular session in March.
Both AARP and the Florida Coalition for Children support increasing Florida's cigarette tax, currently 46th in the nation. Lawmakers also should consider whether sales tax exemptions granted long ago can still be justified. Gov. Charlie Crist has proposed creative use of existing reserves, and congressional action also could provide substantial relief. Yet rather than waiting for Congress to act, legislators now add new meaning to the saying "haste makes waste" by cutting vital services.
On behalf of millions of Floridians of all ages, our organizations call on our Legislature for bold leadership. Who will heed the call?
Lori Parham is state director of AARP Florida. Mike Cusick is president and CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children.