Thursday, August 23, 2012

Will Gov. Rick Scott's Budget Cuts Create A Perfect Storm for GOP in Tampa?

  by Nomad

ith the Republican National Convention in Tampa opening on August 27 , Florida governor Rick Scott has been scheduled to speak after House Speaker John Boehner on its opening night. There was, in fact, some question about whether Scott would be invited to speak since his popularity ranks at or near the bottom of governors since he took office last year.

The reasons for his unpopularity are easy to list. As one partisan source tells us:
In addition to the voter purge, Scott’s rock-bottom approval is the product of the Republicans’ unpopular and extremist initiatives. From attempting to restrict women's health care, to attempting to privatize Florida prisons for the benefit of a large political contributor, to a budget that provided zero dollars for public school construction and slashed funding for higher education, Scott and the Republicans spent their months in Tallahassee painting a perfect picture of how truly out of touch the GOP is with the concerns of Florida’s middle class families.
In some ways it is only logical that the out-of-touch Republican leadership should decide that this particular man- who is clearly so unpopular- should be offered a chance to speak at the convention. He is, after all, a proper symbol of what has gone wrong.
Not that the GOP understands that finer point. Throughout Scott's boasting at the convention, absolutely nobody in Tampa will be asking questions about the reasons for this negative opinion of Scott's character, his policies and his performance.
Rick Scott wasn't always so disliked but the honeymoon was surprisingly short.

Florida's Falling Star
Early last year, US News and World Report were hailing Florida governor Rick Scott's budget in glowing terms. Peter Roff, a contributing editor, gushed:
Coming out of nowhere, Scott—who had previously been active in the fight against nationalized healthcare—bested two statewide elected officials on his way to winning the top office in the nation’s third largest state. What is even more surprising is that Scott, having promised to govern as a consistent conservative, appears to be doing just that on the basis of his just-introduced 2011 budget.
To describe Rick Scott as a "fighter against nationalized healthcare" is quite a stretch. As we have seen, Rick Scott was CEO of a company at the center of one of the largest Medicare fraud cases in US history. (If Scott was fighting anything, it was a fight to hold on to his position at his own company. In the end, he lost that battle but managed somehow to avoid prosecution.) 
All together, Scott has proposed an ambitious plan that puts the taxpayers’ interests ahead of the special interests, especially those within state government itself. It’s the kind of budget that the Tea Party Nation can get excited about—making it a model for what other reform-minded governors may want to do in their states. It’s clear that Scott not only got the message about what voters wanted in 2010, he’s acting on it. The mandate they gave was not to better manage the welfare state; it was to winnow it down.
Keep in mind that's not a press release from Rick Scott's press office. It is supposed to be a news article. Contrary to the article's notion, it was not taxpayer's interests that Scott seemed so concerned about but the politics of his party.
If he’s successful, it almost assuredly gets him on the short list for vice president in 2012 or, depending on the outcome of that election, for president in 2016.
Alas, it was a case of the swan that was really only a goose. Voters quickly grew disenchanted with Governor Scott. And not a little. 
Last December polls showed a paltry 26% approval rating making him the least popular governor in the country. (Since that time, those figures have improved, but not by very much.) 
In fact, even his own party seemed fed up with Scott, it seems.
"Scott’s undoing begins with dwindling support in his own party. Just 53% of Republicans approve of his job performance, down from 60% in April. 17% of Republicans would rather take their chances with unknown Democrat Nan Rich in the gubernatorial election than vote for Scott."
While some Scott's supporters- wherever they linger- may say that the governor is making courageous decisions when it comes to the difficult choices about funding, others feel that his budget cuts have had a damaging impact on the state's social services upon which so many are dependent.
Since taking office, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has slashed health and human-services agencies while offsetting costs with corporate tax cuts. During last year’s legislative session, the Florida Department of Health took a total budget reduction of $55.6 million, eliminating hundreds of full-time positions and cutting children’s medical services.
And it's not merely a question of social conscience or the loss of jobs, the cuts are also putting all Floridians at risk. 

When Short-Sighted Thinking is Risk Taking
Here's an example of the way that Rick Scott's "frugality" is an illustration of the dangers of short term thinking.

According to an article by Palm Beach Post staff writer Stacey Singer, in April of this year, Center for Disease Control investigator Dr. Robert Luo warned state legislators that a proposed cut in the Department of Health and shutting the doors of A.G. Holley State Hospital in Lantana, the leading tuberculosis hospital in the state could put the larger community at risk. A Jacksonville tuberculosis outbreak (linked to 13 deaths and 99 illnesses, including six children), the investigator warned, was the worst in 20 years and it would require a concerted effort to keep the outbreak from spreading.

The 25-page report was never read and not widely circulated, In fact, TB hospital was ordered to be closed six months ahead of schedule. The public was never informed of the TB risk and eventually the same strain was appearing in other parts of the state, including Miami.

*    *    *    *
Besides the general public risk, the health care cuts do not make any sense economically. If caught in its early stages, tuberculosis can generally be treated at a cost of around $500. Poorly supervised or partial treatment however, can lead to drug resistance, compounding the problem, both in terms of medical care and expense.
The average cost to treat a drug-resistant strain is more than $275,000, requiring up to two years on medications. For this reason, the state pays for public health nurses to go to the home of a person with TB every day to observe them taking their medications.
In the Jacksonville case, the type of patients were the itinerant homeless, drug-addicted, mentally ill people which required special supervision which could only come from hospitalized care. Following the closure of A.G. Holley, patients had to be put up in motels so that nurses could regularly monitor the treatment. 

This then is the real cost of Rick Scott budgetary cuts. Greater expense in the long term, inferior social services, failure to reach those most in need, and a greater risk to the community at large. Ignoring the problem does not make it disappear. In fact, problems like public health only get more expensive and more widespread the longer they are left unresolved. 
Rick Scott's flawed budgetary decisions simply pass the problem on as if there were no tomorrow. in any case, it won't be his problem.

Le Déluge
Tradition has it that prior to the French Revolution, King Louis XV (1710-1774) said:
“Après moi, le déluge”

The literal meaning, After me, the flood. The phrase came to symbolize a certain frivolous careless attitude about social problems that was found among the rulers and the aristocracy. That idea was: After I am gone, who cares? By ignoring the warnings, they ensured their own destruction and the eventual downfall of their whole nation. A classic case of social myopia.

It is just this kind of short-term thinking- masked by Tea party rhetoric about reducing government spending- that will eventually lead to catastrophe somewhere down the line. Not everything is waste and often what appears to be wasteful spending by government is merely an investment in the future or a preventative against larger and more expensive problems. 
Scott doesn't seem to mind taking the risk. Nobody expects him to be still around by the time the extent of the damage is fully understood.
In a May article in Insurance Journal, reporter Gary Fineout uncovered another hidden danger lurking in the Rick Scott budget:
Florida may not have enough money to pay off hurricane insurance claims if a big storm hits this year.
About twenty years ago, after Hurricane Andrew caused widespread damage, Florida created The Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund (CAT), which allows insurance companies reinsurance at prices generally lower than those in the private market. By offering government subsidized low-cost coverage, private insurers would remain in the state despite the potential for hurricane damage. Every company is required to purchase coverage. (It was like Obama's Affordable Care Act, actually.)
The state-owned Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund expects to have about $8.5 billion in cash reserves to help cover the cost of storm damage. Just one hurricane, Wilma, in 2005, cost $9.4 billion.
If necessary, say operators of the fund, they are prepared to borrow to $7 billion more to shore up the deficit. How will this loan be payed back? By a surcharge on every Floridian's property and auto insurance policies. This, despite the fact that one of Scott's proudest achievement is a $1.4 billion reduction in property taxes. Clearly the governor has gambled that the state will not be hit by a hurricane. In Florida. In summer.

There were other attempts at resolving the emergency funding shortfall. Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a budget-related measure designed to shore up the state hurricane catastrophe fund by selling tax credits to insurance companies.The so-called Florida Insurance Tax Pre-Payment Program was pushed by banking industry lobbyists and was one of the last budgetary maneuvers by Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales.
With the CAT fund facing a $3 billion deficit and Florida headed into another hurricane season, Alexander said it made sense for banks and insurers to receive up to $1.5 billion in tax credits over a 10-year period by paying their state premium taxes ahead of time.

Read more here:
This attempt to find the necessary funding was vetoed and in a statement, the governor gave this justification:
"The language was not fully vetted through the committee process and emerged late in the budget conference."

Alexander's proposal might not have been the solution. It could have been more trouble than it’ was worth, as some believed. Still, it was an alternative to doing nothing, or merely to cutting the safety net and crossing fingers.

The Ledger also covered the story and in an editorial warned legislators against this kind of risk-taking. Ignoring a potential problem is not the solution.
We have known for years about the state's extreme financial vulnerability should a "big one" hit. But lawmakers have been reluctant to tackle the insurance reforms necessary to spread the risk beyond state government. Luckily, the last several hurricane seasons have been relatively benign.
Rather than just illogically hoping for hurricanes to steer clear of Florida year after year, the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott must buckle down and close Florida's insurance gap. They must do so in a manner that continues to make insurance available and affordable enough for homeowners to make use of it.
Issac, The Uninvited Guest
On the right is a storm tracking prediction based on meteorologists best guesses on the path of Tropical Storm Isaac. If this is accurate, the storm should be directly over the Tampa for the opening of the Republican National Convention on August 27.

According to storm trackers, Issac appears set to march up along the Florida's Gulf coast, and giving Tampa what could be a lashing. The Miami Herald noted that the worst hurricane ever to hit Tampa pretty much drowned the site of the Republican National Convention.

(Actually most meteorologists think the chances of Tampa taking a direct hit are slim but mostly because so few hurricanes have struck that particular area in the past. There is, of course, the annoying word "unprecedented.")

It is quite possible that this storm will arrive just in time to welcome the Republican politicians and to join Rick Scott in praising the Tea party wisdom of indiscriminate cutting government spending. 

Regarding the storm, the Governor released this statement:
“Although Tropical Storm Isaac is still far from Florida’s shores, we are closely tracking the potential for the storm to impact part or all of the state, including the Tampa Bay region during the Republican National Convention. Florida’s state emergency management team and local emergency teams have been working closely with convention officials and have been planning for this event for more than a year, and the possibility of a hurricane hitting the convention has been part of that planning process.
Disturbingly, when the governor talks about plans for a possible hurricane the governor's concern is nearly completely focused on the Republican convention and the potential impact there. In his haste to reassure the convention vistors, Scott hasn't even mentioned the possibility of harm to the residents of the state. 
In fact, there is a detailed disaster plan for Tampa online. It makes interesting but also rather grim reading.  Should a hurricane hit the city, the Republican convention would certainly be only one of the multitude of issues that would arise. The problems of the Republican delegates would not take any greater precedence should a catastrophic event occur in the Tampa Bay area. 

There's a kind of symmetry here. It has been seven years nearly to the day that Hurricane Katrina, (which has been called "the most anticipated disaster in modern American history")  made landfall in southeast Louisiana. Back then, budgets on a national and local scale were also reduced despite the official warnings at all levels. 
With changes in priorities after 9/11, there was a re-distribution of government funds. Forcing FEMA to compete with Homeland Security for federal funding  had also played a role in making the disaster far worse. A perfect storm of government mismanagement that allowed a Nature's perfect storm to destroy a city and bring shame to a nation. As one source explains:

As FEMA was shrunk, the ability to help those in need in the event of a national emergency plummeted. Hurricane Katrina shows what happens when people who disdain government are put in charge. Conservatives dismantled the government agency, hired cronies and abdicated responsibility at every level.
In this way, Governor Rick Scott. the once-proud Tea Party darling, slasher of  safety-nets and next week's convention guest speaker, will be following in the Republican party tradition.