As lawmakers prepare to head back to Tallahassee next week to kick off a three-week special session to pass a budget, three St. Pete-area representatives and a senator fielded questions from the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce about the business group’s priorities.
The crew consisted of two Republicans – state Sen. Jeff Brandes and state Rep. Kathleen Peters – and two Democrats – state Reps. Darryl Rouson and Dwight Dudley.
Among the Chamber’s top priorities are passing a budget that contains some provision for expanding the state’s Medicaid to include some 800,000 uninsured, low-income Floridians and fund the state’s Low Income Pool using federal money, not state funding.
As the chamber noted in a rundown of priorities handed out to attendees at a meeting at St. Pete’s Free Fall Theater, if LIP funding evaporates from federal funding as proposed, All Children’s Hospital stands to lose $55 million. Another group of hospitals run by Baycare would lose $100 million.
The Florida Senate proposed legislation that would have expanded Medicaid, but the House failed to file any similar legislation. LIP funding is tied to Medicaid expansion and without it, the funding is set to expire.
Though Brandes is in the Senate where a proposal was on the table, he seemed to imply he was opposed to the plan.
“Today, the current discussion is a 90/10 split,” Brandes said. “But what happens if [the federal government comes] back and say we can only give you 60/40?”
Brandes argued that the future of Medicaid in Florida even just five years from now is uncertain. He challenged anyone who said otherwise is simply wrong. Brandes’ argument is similar to conservatives who have long opposed expanding Medicaid and one that tends to infuriate Democrats.
“I’ve heard this argument about the federal government will leave us stranded and holding the bag,” Rouson said. “If we don’t take the $51 billion that will create jobs, that will give people quality health care, then it’s going to go to California.”
The argument between the Democrats and Republicans sitting on token green benches escalated despite Chamber of Commerce President Chris Steinocher trying to turn a hose on the debate. Dudley chimed in with one of his trademark speeches passionately pleading on behalf of uninsured Floridians.
“I’ve heard a lot of silly arguments,” he said.
But Peters fired back with her own arguments and, at one point, even raised her voice to a near shout.
“You’ve got 800,000 people that might not get insurance,” Peters said. “Those 800,000 have no disabilities and no children.
While Peters failed to offer an alternative solution, Brandes suggested the federal government might eventually come around and help states without Medicaid expansion through block grants. However, he approached that idea as one down the road a ways and didn’t suggest any immediate fixes.
Another top local priority for the chamber is providing $1 million to fund a Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit study. Again, the Senate included the funding in a version of its budget, but the House did not.
“It was just late in the process,” Peters said. “But it doesn’t mean we can’t get it done.
The proposed BRT line would run on First Avenues North and South from downtown St. Pete to the beaches. While there is already a beach trolley running down Central Avenue, the route takes too long to navigate from start to finish. A BRT line is expected to be more widely used for long trips while the trolley route is more ideal for short trips along Central Avenue.
The Chamber is also hopeful the Legislature will pave the way for ride share companies like Uber to run smoothly and even expand. Brandes said that is just a matter of time. He even gloated the state may not be far off from expanded Uber services like Uber Pool, which allows users to go anywhere within a city for just $7 and Uber Eats that would serve as a sort of food delivery service.
There was also talk of a $12.3 million funding ask for USF St. Pete’s Kate Tiedemann College of Business. It’s included in the House budget, but not the Senate’s. Peters said the money is there; it just needs to be protected in budget negotiations during the Special Session.
There was an opportunity for members of the audience to ask questions. Few took advantage of it, but one man asked about marijuana reform legislation.
Brandes filed a bill that would have paved the way for broad medical marijuana in the state. His bill died, but an amendment was added to another that would have worked similarly. The House failed to pass it, though.
“It’s about, what’s the right regulatory structure,” Brandes said. “I think you’re going to see us come out with a plan.”
The man also directed his question to Peters, who lamented the potential dangers associated with marijuana use.
“Because it decreases the amount of dopamine, it increases the amount of depression,” Peters said. “The longer they use it the likelihood of severe depression and bipolar [disorder] being produced increases substantially.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, there is some correlation to depression and instances of marijuana use, but “there’s no clear evidence that marijuana directly causes depression.”
And a study released earlier this year suggested marijuana may actually be an effective treatment for depression.
Peters also told the man she did not agree with him that bipolar disorder is genetic.