Like most columns, these musings frequently rely on hours of hard digging and analysis by determined journalists. It leaves me free to comment on their report. Today’s offering is a case in point. Three legislative issues just itch to be addressed. On the top of my mind are some further thoughts about ALEC, the size of our Florida prison population and the ease with which a majority of our state House legislators turned down a few billion in federal Medicaid dollars.
First, a word about our outsized prison population. As the state felony laws demand more long-term prison sentences, we join the nation in locking up more of our fellow citizens than any other advanced civilization. We have 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. We have locked up 2.2 million people or one in every 107 adults. It is hard to believe that Americans are four times as likely to choose a life of crime as Egyptians, Japanese, Frenchmen, Greeks, Italians, Brazilians or Brits. Drug sales, sometimes of tiny amounts, account for a large share of the mandatory sentencing in the U.S. Given the cost of incarceration, shorter sentences, rehab programs and the teaching of a viable trade or skill might save the state a lot of money. Added to the prison population, in Florida and some other states, we have substituted jails for both long- and short-term mental health facilities.
ALEC, which stands for American Legislative Exchange Council, is a big business-supported nonprofit organization whose primary mission is to promote a narrow conservative agenda in state legislatures across the country. Funds come in from AT&T, Bank of America, Comcast, Duke Power, which supplies much of our states’ electricity, Exxon Mobil, Publix, State Farm and dozens of other heavy hitters. All have an interest in favorable statehouse legislation. ALEC had its big annual meeting earlier this month. Our popular former Gov. Jeb Bush was featured as kickoff speaker. The cost for their ALEC speaker fees, research, bill creation, meetings and entertainment are borne by the corporate members who join with state legislators across the country in crafting new cookie-cutter laws.
We are a convention attending country. Realtors have their big annual get-together, as do plumbers, lawyers and newspaper publishers. Conservative state legislators have ALEC. It was ALEC that crafted the model voter registration bills adopted by a number of state legislatures and proved such an embarrassment to Florida in the last presidential election. Fortunately, the nation did not need to wait a couple of days to determine Florida’s vote to know that Mitt Romney lost. That embarrassment was cleaned up in a revised Florida voter law this year. Good thing for both Republicans and Democrats. The effort to use voter ID and fewer early voting days boomeranged. African-Americans were so motivated by the voting hurdles that across the country a larger percentage of registered African-American voters went to the polls than registered white voters.
My final big beef with the Legislature is its rejection of the billions that would have circulated in the state over the next 10 years to provide health care for the neediest of our citizens under Medicaid. Legislators have denied medical coverage to a million of our poorest citizens. The same Florida House that turned away the federal dollars has taken care of itself. Legislating may be a part-time job but they reward themselves with full-time medical coverage. Legislators pay just $8.34 a month for full coverage or $30 a month for full family coverage with the rest of the premium picked up by the state.
It is hard to perceive the majority’s action as anything but mean-spirited indifference in denying medical coverage to one million of Florida’s citizens. Rejecting the federal dollars that go with this program will save us no money. We will still pay the federal taxes that flow to the states that accept this section of Obamacare. In addition, hospitals, by law, must provide emergency care even if there is no way to collect for the service. Eventually they will pass on the costs to the rest of us.
Derek Dunn-Rankin is chairman of Sun Coast Media Group. He can be reached at derekdr@ sun-herald.com.