Lakewood Ranch Herald

Elected officials take the heat at Lakewood Ranch forurm

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Elected state and local officials had some explaining to do Wednesday in front of nearly 100 constituents concerned about Florida's yet-unfinished budget, Medicaid expansion and ongoing strife in the Manatee County School District.

At a Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance luncheon featuring dirty laundry as much as political process, state Reps. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, and Dr. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, and Manatee County School Board Chairman Bob Gause said money is critically tight even in the present healthy economy.

Steube and Gonzalez defended the House actions this spring to stave off expansion of the federal Medicaid program when members walked out on a session three weeks ago.

The Senate supports Medicaid expansion, while the House has submitted legislation to extend state-subsidized insurance policies to some low-income residents.

For his part, Gause said he is acutely aware of the Legislature's failure to pass the budget, which contains money for Manatee County schools. The body will tackle the funding measure when it goes back into session for 20 days June 1. The Manatee County School District must vote on its budget July 1 -- with or without approved state funding.

"We need that issue to be resolved," he said. "Otherwise, we may have to increase the amount of money we borrow to pay our operating costs."

Gause also fielded a question from former Superintendent Rick Mills, who retired recently after the school board agreed to pay him five months salary to leave before July 31.

Medicaid, however, dominated the 45-minute discussion at the Polo Grill. Steube said House members oppose expanding Medicaid so that more than 800,000 uninsured Floridians can get medical coverage because they fear the federal government may back out of its commitment to fund most of the increase. The Senate, he said, favors it because the expansion would secure more than $1 billion in Low Income Pool funds that goes to hospitals treating the uninsured.

Steube said added Medicaid coverage could cripple the state budget in the future.

"If we expand it, how much is it going to cost the state of Florida in the future?" Steube said.

Gonzalez said he favors the subsidized insurance plan because more doctors, clinics and hospitals will accept it. So few doctors and institutions take Medicaid it effectively shuts Florida's poor out of health care, he said.

"I want everybody to have access," Gonzalez said.

A 10-minute question-and-answer session drew out deeper political frustrations. Responding to a query from alliance board Chairman David Fink concerning the Medicaid discord between the House and Senate, Steube said he doesn't know why the gulf exists.

The two chambers are far apart on the issue. The Senate has yet to get legislation supporting the expansion out of committee.

"I would love to know what their reasonings are from a public policy perspective," Steube said.

Gause, who took a few minutes to talk about the challenges school board members have in working with each other, took the most contentious question of the afternoon from Mills, who took Gause to task on how the board handled Gregg Faller's failure to report suspected abuse of a student in 2013 involving former parent liaison Roderick Frazier.

Mills placed Faller and other employees on leave while criminal charges were pending. Faller was the only former employee arrested and ultimately convicted on charges of failing to report suspicions of child abuse.

"I would like to ask a question why you and the school board failed to terminate an employee who was convicted criminally of failure to report suspected child abuse?" Mills asked.

Gause, who voted with the board majority to suspend Faller without pay until his contract ended last June, said he felt the punishment was consistent with Faller's actions.

"I think he did screw up," Gause said. "He was not convicted of abusing a child. He was convicted of not making a phone call."

Gause and Mills sparred briefly with Gause saying the former superintendent asked a question for which he knew the answer.

"I wouldn't have asked it if I had known," Mills shot back from his seat at the edge of the room.

The alliance holds its legislative wrapup every year at the end of the session.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.