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Move to cut fund for poor angers many

From legislators in Tallahassee to doctors in Tampa clinics, there was furious reaction Wednesday to political maneuvering that would cut in half Hillsborough County's health care funding for the poor.

State Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa, attacked a measure approved Tuesday by Hillsborough County commissioners to appease tax-cutting Republicans by reducing the half-penny sales tax for indigent care to a quarter-cent and cutting a $26.8-million property tax levy for health care in half.

"I think that's a fairly irresponsible approach," Grant said. "It takes a plan that is solid and puts it on a path of self-destruction. They came down with a compromise that would bankrupt the program in 2005."

Grant, the Senate sponsor of the bill to extend the tax to provide mandated health care for the poor, said Sen. Jim Scott is apparently trying to scuttle the tax. Scott, a no-new-tax Republican and former Senate president, was behind a similar measure last year to kill the tax renewal in an apparent retaliation against Grant's sponsorship of a car rental tax. Scott's law firm represented Alamo.

"If they changed their mind, I'll do what the county wants to do. Truth is, that's not what the county wants to do," Grant said. "There's some strange players in there, and I'm not sure what everybody's motive is."

Hillsborough's legislative delegation remained seriously divided Wednesday over renewal of the tax, which expires in 1998. County Administrator Dan Kleman on Tuesday told commissioners the only plan that could win approval was a compromise being pushed by freshman Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who wants to lower the tax and eliminate the cash reserve of more than $130-million. Meanwhile, state Sen. Charlie Crist, R-St. Petersburg, said he will vote against any tax without a referendum.

Dr. John Curran, a pediatrician and member of the county's Health Care Advisory Board, said cutting the tax in half will keep the county from expanding the program to the working poor, providing dental coverage and offering variations that could wean recipients from dependency on the program.

Right now, there's an incentive for people on the plan to keep their incomes below 100 percent of the federal poverty guidelines _ $7,750 for a single adult _ to remain eligible, he said. "I'm disappointed," he said. "It will institutionalize us as a welfare dependency-type program."

In addition, some of the $130-million reserve the program has built up must fund unpaid debt.

"It's the worst possible decision they could make," said retired Tampa surgeon Dr. Fred Reddy, referring to the commission's move to trim the tax. "We expect the mission to go up, and they're cutting back."

Commissioners said they were forced to agree to the compromise plan because the tax would face certain legislative defeat next year, an election year.

"If we can't get it through this year, it's going to die," said Commission Chairman Dottie Berger.