Congress finally sent a lifeline Tuesday to states struggling to maintain health care for the poor and keep teachers in classrooms. The legislation sent to President Barack Obama is relatively modest and falls well short of the bold additional stimulus necessary to keep the tenuous economy from backsliding. But it is a significant step toward helping low-income Americans and protecting public schools from even deeper cuts.
The money should mean real jobs and services for Florida, where the unemployment rate of 11.4 percent is well above the national average and swelling the ranks of 2.7 million who already qualify for Medicaid. Florida will collect $784 million more in Medicaid matching money. That's less than the $1 billion the Legislature hoped for when it wrote the 2010-11 budget. Nonetheless, the infusion of Medicaid money combined with the additional education dollars should help prevent an assortment of spending cuts state lawmakers had planned if Congress didn't deliver.
As many as 9,200 teachers' jobs in Florida could be spared as the state is eligible to collect $555 million in education money. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who has been championing the bill, said it would mean roughly 610 jobs saved in her district, which includes parts of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee counties.
Predictably, Tuesday's House vote fell largely along partisan lines even after Democrats met Republicans' demands that any additional stimulus sent to states not increase the deficit. Democrats cobbled together a solution that included closing nearly $10 billion in tax loopholes used by multinational companies and saving $11.9 billion over 10 years by reducing food stamp benefits starting in 2014. Advocates for the poor decried that last provision, which would rescind an increase in benefits enacted under the 2009 stimulus package. But there is time for Congress to adjust that decision if the economy does not rebound.
Republican opponents painted the bill as a Democratic bribe for the teacher unions. But that's about as cynical as it gets, and Florida parents who have seen the impact of a third year of stagnant state funding for education won't buy it. Florida, like all states, has tightened its belt during the recession. But shortchanging education has long-term consequences in a state that desperately needs to improve its schools to build a more diverse economy.
Castor understood that. Sadly, she was alone among the Tampa Bay delegation in supporting the legislation. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, was excused from the vote due to medical issues. Republican Reps. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor, Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville and Adam Putnam of Bartow voted no. Brown-Waite is finally retiring, but Bilirakis and Putnam will be on the November ballot — and voters should ask them why they voted against Florida's best interests.