Jeff Lytle: The meeting went by the script, until the audience got involved

Photo with no caption
Photo with no caption

“The elephant in the room ... ”

So started the written question from the audience at a legislative forum that I moderated in Fort Myers this past week.

Actually, there were five elephants. All panel members were Republicans — U.S. Rep. Trey Radel, Florida Sens. Garrett Richter and Lizbeth Benacquisto and Florida Reps. Dane Eagle and Ray Rodrigues.

But the elephant the questioner had in mind was the issue of Florida refusing to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage for an estimated 1.1 million people. It was an elephant because the issue failed to come up during the lawmakers’ opening round of remarks — before audience questions came to me on index cards.

The question, asking panelists if they would reconsider or had a better plan, was even signed, by Dr. Stephen Brown, a member of the board of Lee Memorial Health System, which in Lee carries as much weight as NCH Healthcare System and Physicians Regional combined in Collier.

I invited each panelist to respond, and one by one they summarized the GOP party line — about the danger of committing to a Democratic program whose funding might suddenly disappear.

Thus the dialogue about the elephant lumbered to a close.

Until, that is, I pointed to the front table full of Lee Memorial officials, including Brown, and invited a response from someone, so the audience could hear both sides.

The Zen master of Lee County health care, CEO Jim Nathan, stood and came forward. He gave a clinic on what is at stake. Some might even call it a smackdown.

You could have heard a pin drop as leaned into the microphone and said we are all already paying for Medicaid one way or another, and by rejecting it Florida is hurting businesses — did I mention this was a Southwest Florida Chamber of Commerce event? — and everyone else who pays extra to absorb unpaid indigent care.

He summarized key points of a position paper that has called, so far in vain, for a special session to reconsider:

“Utilizing emergency departments for primary care results in people delaying access to care and increasing costs for everyone.”

“Passing on accepting the federal dollars that we (Floridians) have already paid for will not only affect the 1.1 million Florida residents who would be eligible for expansion but also the remaining 18 million Floridians and many millions of visitors since there will be less funds for technology, programs, services, staff and facilities for all Floridians. Additionally, it takes $51 billion out of the Florida economy over the next decade.”

Seldom does anyone attending one of these legislative reviews dare yield such a potent counterpoint. It was quite a moment. The audience was well served and could make up their own minds.

The panel declined to respond, except for Eagle’s acknowledgement that work needs to be done — and there was no movement on that special session idea.

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The same panel disclosed that Gov. Rick Scott’s surprise veto of $7.5 million for the Innovation Hub science/energy complex at Florida Gulf Coast University is not being taken lightly.

Benacquisto went so far as to say Scott’s office has promised a personal visit by the governor to see and hear more.

Good news for the thousands of jobs envisioned at the hub, which has been hailed as a “new dimension” for Southwest Florida.

The impact of all this hits home when you talk to someone directly affected, right now. Fred Enman, president of Wright Construction Group, told me he had gotten the Innovation Hub contract — about 10 days before the veto.

Seated next to him at the chamber event was Rich Galvano, whose development partner has invested $1 million in the hub, for an FGCU teaching chair, and looked for the state money to go with the $4.9 million approved last year to get it started.

Enman and Galvano, both optimists, said they will be working to proceed with the groundwork.

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If you want to see what is driving much of the uptick in property values in Collier and Lee counties, hop on Livingston Road/Imperial Parkway/Three Oaks Parkway sometime and cruise all the way from Radio Road in East Naples to Alico Road in Estero. It is the backbone of the boom.

Yet, for context, keep this in mind about the Collier comeback. Even with the 3.4 percent rise in taxable values this year, to about $60 billion, according to preliminary data, the county is back to only 2005 levels.

And between 2006 and last year, just FYI, we lost about $20 billion of value.

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Last week’s column tried so hard to salute two educators who won the annual Naples Jewish Federation’s Stand Up for Justice grants, only to reverse their photos.

Here are Margy Bastida, a seventh-grade technology teacher at Pine Ridge Middle School, and Jana Csenger, a school psychologist — not a counselor as reported — for Collier County Public Schools.

No good deed, even standing up to bullying, seems to go unpunished.

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Comments » 1

greathornedlizard writes:

Isn't anyone going to ask our State Representatives how they justify giving themselves comprehensive healthcare for $8.34 per month individually and $30. per month for their families?

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