MANATEE -- Former GOP state representative Bill Galvano and his Democratic opponent, Paula House, clashed on health care reform and privatization of prisons, but agreed education was a top budget priority during a debate Monday.
The two, vying for the Florida Senate seat representing the newly drawn District 26, met during a forum sponsored by the Bradenton Herald and METV at the METV Studios.
Herald Editorial Page Editor Chris Wille noted that Florida Gov. Rick Scott has rejected federal money to extend the Medicaid program, leaving millions of the poor without health insurance, and refusing to implement an insurance exchange that would allow Floridians to shop for the best price.
Wille asked each candidate his thoughts on Medicaid expansion, refusing federal dollars and rejecting the federal Affordable Care Act.
Galvano said at the outset he did not like or support the Affordable Care Act.
"That having been said, I'm more cautious about letting Washington do things that we as a state should do, and the exchange is a good example," Galvano said. "By not being a little more proactive, we may end up forced into the situation, with Washington dealing with the exchanges, as opposed to us," he said, adding, "I would have been more proactive to bring it in."
As far as the fiscal impacts, he's seen many studies but they constitute "a lot of unknowns," he said.
House took the opposite view, saying health care is already rationed in Florida through Medicaid.
Florida has no plan to provide health care to 3.6 million people who cannot afford it, those who would benefit from Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act, she said.
"Those are taxpayer dollars that are sitting there waiting to come to Florida, $2.1 billion in the first year that will help us take care of our sick and our poor, our elderly and our children and our single people
who have experienced devastating financial reversals and cannot afford health care," she said.
"We will absolutely have to embrace that opportunity here in Florida," she added.
BayNews 9 reporter Eric Sollman asked the candidates to cite their positions on privatizing state services, such as prison health services and correctional institutions.
Galvano supported the idea, House opposed it.
"We should look at it," said Galvano, noting that Florida has had privatized prisons since 1989, and now has seven such facilities, showing savings to taxpayers of 10-20 percent.
"These programs are working and saving dollars," he said, but he added as a caveat that, for such a system to work properly, it would involve careful bidding process and oversight once a contract is awarded.
House opposed privatizing prisons because they're among the essential and core services that are traditionally the responsibility of the state, she said.
"It's hard to see that if a business is running our prisons, and if their continued operation depends upon having 'prisoners,' isn't there a convenient lobby against these programs, found to be so effective, to address the problems that criminals, especially nonviolent ones, have related to mental illness, drug abuse, and alcoholism?" she asked.
"There's a clear conflict of interest here, and I'm certainly against it," she said.
Asked by Herald Executive Editor Joan Krauter about their budget priorities in a year in which Florida's financial picture appears to be brightening, both candidates cited education as their top choice.
"My budget priority will be education," said House, noting it has been "slighted" over the last several legislative sessions.
She said the state needs a well-educated population in order to attract business, and needs to invest in its public infrastructure as well.
Galvano agreed, saying, "I do believe we can continue to step up education funding."
Infrastructure is important as well, he said, adding that funding has not been at a level where it should be, and recommending regional planning.
He also advocated that, as the economy improves, the state should again set money aside in reserve like it did during the years "when we had a robust budget."
Galvano, 46, is a Bradenton attorney; House, 62, is an attorney and mediator from Lake Placid.
The forum will be will be broadcast on METV until the elections.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.