5 questions for Senator Joe Negron

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Senate budget chief Joe Negron also chairs his chamber’s Select Committee on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. He was the Senate’s budget vice-chair for the last two years and had held the top budget spot in the House. It’s all readying the Stuart Republican for his anticipated run at the Senate Presidency for 2017-18.

Negron is also known for his legislative passions. He’s back this year for the third time with a bill putting in statute the public’s right to be heard at open meetings. His bill to ban the use of unmanned drone aircraft in Florida has garnered national attention and widespread support.

The News Service of Florida has five questions for Joe Negron:Q: Are you satisfied with the progress of your bill limiting the use of drones? 

NEGRON: I think it’s the fastest-moving bill in the Legislature this year. There’s been strong support, not only from members that have a strong interest in protecting civil liberties, but also from some legislators with impeccable law enforcement credentials.

I’ve made some changes to the bill to take law enforcement concerns into effect, and there’s always a delicate balance between liberty and security. I’m trying to strike that balance by having an exception for a search warrant and also one for emergency circumstances. So I feel very good about where we are this early in the process.

Q: What are the best arguments you’ve heard, pro and con, for expanding Medicaid eligibility? 

NEGRON: I think the arguments in favor are: We have about 900,000 of our fellow citizens that have no insurance coverage, at the moment, (who) would at least have the opportunity to participate in the Medicaid system and to have some level of coverage.

Another pro would be: These fellow citizens, just because they don’t have insurance doesn’t mean they don’t need medical care. And so they access care at some of the most expensive places in the system because they don’t have the money to get preventative care and primary care. So those costs to emergency rooms simply get passed along to commercial plans, which is one reason why people’s health insurance is so expensive. So I think you could make an argument that expanding Medicaid would increase revenue to hospitals that right now is uncompensated care.

A third reason to expand Medicaid would be that since the initial costs are borne by the federal government – we all have our different opinions on the Affordable Care Act, but one of the ways in which people can get insurance is through the Medicaid expansion. There may be a way to limit the state’s exposure and see how it works in the early stages.

The cons: Number one, we know the federal government is borrowing 46 cents for every dollar it spends, and so that doesn’t seem sustainable in the long term. The Medicaid system itself is precarious and fragile, and to bring in another million people may overwhelm the capacity of the system to provide high-quality care.

And finally, Medicaid has always been a safety-net program, and therefore, making sure that we take care of pregnant women, we take care of our fellow citizens with disabilities, aged individuals – but it’s always been limited to that. With the expansion, Medicaid is slowly being transformed into a primary-care provider for the larger population.

We also know that when they expanded Medicaid in Arizona and Maine, that it ended up being a much larger number and much more expensive than the traditional Medicaid recipients.

Q: How does the state’s improving revenue forecast affect your job as Senate budget chief – easier or harder?

NEGRON: Easier. I think that we still have tough choices to make, and I don’t want anyone to be under the impression that the Capitol building is swimming with hundreds of millions of dollars that are unallocated. Our revenues are up because Floridians are working hard, and we want to spend every penny wisely.

But when you look at some of the big-picture items, we need to put nearly a half a billion dollars into our pension fund to keep it stable. We have additional costs for employee health insurance due to the Affordable Care Act. My goal is to repay – perhaps with some performance measures – but to repay the $300 million to universities that came out of the budget last year. The governor has a $480 million program to pay teachers more. He has a manufacturing tax credit that’s over $100 million. So there’s a lot of big-ticket items that we need to look at. President Gaetz has asked us to consider the possibility of a pay increase for our state employees, and we appreciate and value their service.

So while the revenue picture is brighter, there are still significant demands on the budget, and we’ll have to make tough decisions.

Q: Why is it taking so long to pass your bill giving people the right to be heard?

NEGRON: Well, it didn’t pass the House. It passed out of the Senate. This year I feel much better about our prospects. We have a great House sponsor (Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero), and the bill’s moving along very nicely in the Senate. I’m confident we can get it to the floor for another vote as we did last year.

Not to rank them in any particular order, but three of the most important rights we have as Americans, from my point of view, are your right to a trial by jury, your right to vote and your right to speak. And if you’re spending the public’s money and making decisions that affect your fellow citizens, then you have a responsibility to listen to the citizens before you take action. That’s really all the bill does.

I think it’s important that we put in statute the right of the public to be heard. I’m encouraged with how well the bill is being received in the House, and I think this is the year we’re going to get it done. 

Q: Your legislative outlook seems to be inspired by the study of American history.

NEGRON: I was one of those dorky kids in high school with no girlfriend that sat in the front row and read a lot and helped other students study for their exams and read the Congressional Record at night. I do care about history, and I care about our founding principles as I understand them – and we all have different views of them.

That’s really one thing that informs me. The basic rights guaranteed in the Constitution are extravagant. They include freedom of religion, freedom of the press…the government can’t send soldiers to live in your house if you don’t want them there. It’s an enormously limiting document on abuses of government. 

And we need – there’s a delicate balance. There’s a place for government, and government has a role, but I’m very committed to making sure we preserve what I consider to be uniquely American concepts and principles – and one of those is the supremacy of the individual.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.