Tampa Bay area state legislators Tom Lee and Daryl Rouson took center court at todays’ Tampa Tiger Bay Club meeting, where again the Legislature’s divide on health care drove the debate.
Lee, a Senate Republican, represents Brandon in Tallahassee, while Rouson’s House District comprises a good chunk of South Pinellas County, but bizarrely also includes portions of Ruskin in Hillsborough County, and parts of Manatee and Sarasota counties.
The pair (dubbed “Ebony and Ivory” by Lee) return with the rest of their legislative colleagues to Tallahassee next month to come up with a plan to balance the state’s budget by the end of the month, or see the state run out of funds and go into a government shutdown, something that would be much more embarrassing than the negative fallout they’ve already received for aborting the session abruptly last month.
Representing Democrats throughout the state, Rouson argued passionately why he was fighting to help provide Medicaid expansion to more than 800,000 Floridians, the source of so much dissension in the state Capitol this spring. “My district wants it. 800,000 people in the state want it. The Chambers want it. The hospitals want it. And I don’t think all of them are wearing Gucci loafers.”
But while the Legislature has been talking (in circles) about providing more healthcare coverage for other people, the tables were turned when Tiger Bay member Al McCray asked the two men about a “rumor” that lawmakers only pay $9 a month for their own coverage.
“It’s not $9 a month,” Rouson quickly correcting McCray. “But it is a rate sought by the majority of the taxpayers in the state of Florida. I concede that.” He also was quick to mention that the $29,000 annual salary that lawmakers (who are considered part-time legislators) make is hardly great money to raise a family.
In fact, House members and Gov. Rick Scott had been paying just $8.34 a month for individual coverage and $30 a month for family coverage, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, up until a few years ago. That abruptly changed however in 2013, after negative publicity surfaced about the low premiums lawmakers were paying. Now all legislators pay $50 a month in premiums for individual coverage and $180 a month for family coverage.
Later on during the forum, Tiger Bay member Mimi Osiason returned to the issue, asking specifically how much did lawmakers pay for their insurance, and could the public get access to those same rates?
“We are trying to fight to make sure that everyone has access to some level of health insurance in our state,” said a clearly defensive Lee. “Health insurance is just a piece of a pay package, like a retirement benefit.” He went on to repeat a lawmaker’s salary is just $29,000. But he also acknowledged that the $180 he pays a month for his families’ coverage is “clearly below cost.” Adding in the fact that the state subsidizes each legislator’s coverage by $15,000 a year, and that means that lawmakers are receiving $17,000 of coverage a year. “It’s clearly a perk of serving in the Florida Legislature,” he confessed.
Last week Hillsborough County House Republican Shawn Harrison wrote a letter to the Tampa Tribune about his thoughts on the Medicaid expansion debate. He worried that if the state were to go ahead with such a plan, it could potentially wipe out the benefits that those who get care from the Hillsborough County indigent healthcare program provides. Senator Lee said today that Harrison need not have such fears.
“We tax ourselves half a cent and that goes into a fund that is spread across to provide charity care in our community. I think it’s the attention of those who are interested in seeing additional coverage being provided that it be provided as an additional layer of protection in that system. Not to supplant it.”
Daryl Rouson is one of the most prominent anti-drug advocates among Democrats you’ll ever meet. That’s in large part due to his very public battle with drug addiction. When asked about medical marijuana today, he said that while he does support finding a way to regulate and restrict access to the herb, he also was harshly critical of its potential for bad things to happen.
He mentioned how former University of Florida football coach Will Muschamp called a few years ago to inform him that one of his sons had just failed a urine test for a fourth time, and thus he was being booted from the Gators squad. “I sadly had to pull him out of school and put him into residential treatment for marijuana treatment. And having been through a few treatment centers for marijuana addiction, I understand the destructive nature and what can happen with the proliferation or the legalization of marijuana. And I’m worried about that.”
When asked if Republicans could pay a price at the polls for their infighting during this year’s legislative session, Senator Lee said it was too early to make any such predictions. However, he did use the question as a platform to get some feelings off his chest regarding some of his colleagues, though he refrained from naming names. “We have some members of the Legislature that would be great on talk radio, they’d make great shock jocks, but I’m not sure that they belong in public service,” he said, adding that there was a “decorum and a respect that the public is rightfully demanding of us as elected officials and the willingness to get in and roll up our sleeves…”
Lee also criticized term limits, saying it adds to increased partisanship. “Everyone today knows that they’re not staying very long, and they view every political issue through the prism of their next primary, whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican, and that tends to pull people to both ends of the political spectrum on issues like this, and make it much more difficult for people to work from the center out to build a bridge to find solutions.”
Lee, Rouson and the rest of the Legislature return to Tallahassee for the special session beginning a week from Monday.