Accelify Blog

Bills Will Have Big Effect On Children

April 7, 2010

They don’t vote, they aren’t campaign contributors and when the doors close on final budget negotiations, they tend to drop off the radar.

Children dominate almost every speech in the Legislature, but advocates for the programs that sustain them are bracing for one of the worst years in decades as lawmakers wrestle with a $3.2 billion shortfall.

The election-year veneer of protecting public school spending and holding the line on taxes will wear thin as cuts to Healthy Start, Medicaid, foster care and other programs take their toll, the advocates warn.

"No amount of spending on public schools is going to work until they realize they have to focus on the 16 hours a day a child spends outside of the classroom," said Roy Miller, president of the Children’s Campaign.

Before she directed the Healthy Start program that serves pregnant women and infants in the Big Bend, Ann Davis worked for Meals on Wheels. After more

than 18 years in the non-profit sector, Davis is used to seeing funding for the most vulnerable land on the chopping block.

"A frail, homebound elderly person is just as disenfranchised as a premature baby hooked up to an incubator in neonatal intensive care," she said. "I know the legislators are having a hard, hard time right now. But I’m baffled."

The House last week voted out a $67.2 billion budget, $1.5 billion less than a Senate spending plan that passed the day before.

The House cuts deeper because leaders refuse to consider & quot;phantom" dollars. The Senate assumes the state will get $800 million in Medicaid money from the federal government and that lawmakers will bless a gambling expansion deal with the Seminoles that would raise another $412 million.

The House avoids the most catastrophic cuts by sweeping $778 million from trust funds, about half of that from a road-building fund that is backed by a 12-cent per gallon tax on gasoline.

Children’s advocates see plenty to worry about.

They don’t like a House proposal to eliminate Florida’s 31 Healthy Start Coalitions, one that would fold their infant- and maternal-health missions into county-run health departments.

‘Nobody will hear you’

Advocates were up in arms when the Senate initially proposed zeroing out funding for Healthy Families, a program that works aggressively with families identified as at-risk for child abuse and neglect.

Veteran Senate social services appropriations chairman Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, was so concerned he went public. In a letter to Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, Peaden demanded that all of the federal Medicaid stimulus dollars be kicked back to his committee.

Atwater pledged to protect social services in his opening remarks on the first day of session, but he is also running for chief financial officer and wants to pass hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks.

"I am confident that every member of the Legislature values Florida’s children, both as a part of their own families and as the future of our state," Atwater said. "There is no single area of the state’s budget that has not been affected by the econo my, children’s programs included."

In the end, the Senate plowed about half of the money, $450 million, back into social services. Late last week, advocates learned that Healthy Families was spared.

Children’s programs are a tougher sell because they are complex, resist easy description and their advocates don’t have the clout of big business, teacher unions or school districts, Peaden said.

‘Justify themselves’

Sen. Mike Haridopolos, a Republican from Merritt Island who is next in line to take Atwater’s place as president later this year, said budget writers are forced to do triage.

The choice is between "hard,"and "soft" programs, ones that provide immediate life-giving care versus counseling and prevention, he said.

"I strongly support Healthy Families, and this may be a good time for them to justify themselves," he said.

And that’s frustrating to advocates who say the prevention programs have a long track record of saving lives and tax dollars.

Davis points out that Healthy Start, begun under former Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1991, leverages private donations to provide pre-natal screening and other services for pregnant women and infants.

The House may save $4 million by eliminating the networks, Davis said, but they would also be giving up the $32 million that the coalitions raised from private and local sources.

"I don’t think the health departments could do that," she said.

Eliminating Healthy Families might have saved $28 million, but a recent study suggests that would be short-sighted.

The voluntary program served 12,930 families at a cost of a little more than $1,671per child, according to the study. It costs the state more than $64,000 a year to care for an abused or neglected child. A year after completing the program, 98 percent of the kids are free from abuse and neglect, the study showed.

"It’s a frustrating kind of discussion to keep having," said Children’s Home Society President Dave Bundy. "We need to do a better job at looking at the cost-benefit analysis."