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St. Petersburg committee advances $50,000 for residents’ abortion travel costs

The abortion-rights funding request and resolution needs City Council approval
 
Marchers hold signs supporting abortion rights during the St. Pete Pride Parade on June 25 in St. Petersburg.
Marchers hold signs supporting abortion rights during the St. Pete Pride Parade on June 25 in St. Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Feb. 23, 2023|Updated Feb. 23, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — A City Council committee advanced a $50,000 funding request to pay for travel- and transportation-related expenses for pregnant St. Petersburg residents seeking abortions locally and out of state.

All three of the City Council’s Health, Energy, Resilience and Sustainability committee members present Thursday voted in favor of dipping into the city’s general fund to support the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund. They also voted to advance a resolution affirming the right to privacy in women’s health care decisions.

The full City Council needs to hold a vote for the funding and resolution to go into effect. And even if a majority is in favor, it’s possible Mayor Ken Welch may veto the funding.

“I can’t commit today that we will execute this agreement,” said City Administrator Rob Gerdes.

City Council member Richie Floyd brought the two proposals before the committee in December. Fellow committee members Gina Driscoll and council chairperson Brandi Gabbard asked for a resolution with broader language.

Floyd previously suggested giving $25,000 to the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund, which provides financial assistance for women seeking abortions. On Thursday, he upped that request to $50,000. The committee then specified that the money would strictly go to help women pay for travel out of state for abortions after 15 weeks, at which point Florida prohibits the procedure.

On Thursday, Driscoll and Gabbard voted along with Floyd to approve the funding request and new resolution. The fourth committee member, council member John Muhammad, was absent.

Council members were hesitant to appropriate public dollars to an organization that facilitates abortions at the risk of provoking Gov. Ron DeSantis or the state Legislature, which has increasingly moved to prohibit local governments from taking action on certain issues.

The Tampa Bay Abortion Fund does not own or operate an abortion clinic and state law does not prohibit a donation to the organization. According to its website, the fund connects pregnant people seeking an abortion to providers in counties surrounding Tampa Bay, as well as with out-of-state clinics after 15 weeks.

The abortion fund’s board president, Kris Lawler, said the fund spent $280,000 last year — with 90% of that spent after July, when Florida’s 15-week ban went into effect. Of that, $220,000 went to appointment costs and to pay clinics directly for abortion procedures. The other $60,000 was spent on transportation and travel-related expenses, such as flights, hotels, gas reimbursements and direct cash assistance for food.

Chief Assistant City Attorney Jeannine Williams said a 2016 law prohibiting the use of public money for abortion-affiliated organizations defines affiliation as any person who directly or indirectly manages, controls or oversees operations. The Tampa Bay Abortion Fund, she said, doesn’t directly or indirectly manage an abortion provider, and therefore it wouldn’t conflict with state law.

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If there were a challenge, Williams said, “We believe in our interpretation. It wouldn’t be a successful lawsuit.”

To avoid a possible challenge and to be more comfortable with the request, Driscoll suggested appropriating funding specifically for travel-related costs.

Gerdes suggested amending the city’s criteria for social action funding so the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund could compete for grants up to $50,000. The $750,000 social action fund is currently limited to homeless services.

The committee also approved that change Thursday, but Floyd stressed that time was running out to provide assistance to the abortion fund before the state shortens the timeframe and increases penalties for having an abortion.

Council member Ed Montanari made clear that he was adamantly opposed to giving money to the abortion fund, a move that could open the city up to lawsuits.

“This is dangerous territory to go into,” he said.