Community Alliance of Sarasota brought state legislators together to hear about priorities for 2019 legislative session.
SARASOTA — Social services advocates are gearing up for the 2019 Florida legislative session. On Tuesday, roughly 100 agency leaders and advocates gathered for the Community Alliance of Sarasota County’s Legislative Breakfast of Champions at the Sarasota Salvation Army Community Center. State Rep. Margaret Good (D-Sarasota), Wengay Newton (D-St. Petersburg) and Tommy Gregory (R-Sarasota) listened to pitches from more than a dozen advocates, who urged the representatives to champion their causes.
Next year’s legislative session begins in March, but Newton said those gathered were doing the right thing by getting their requests in now. He encouraged them to continue hounding their elected leaders for funding and support for their programs.
“Make sure you explain it like they are 3-years-old, and say exactly what your ask is,” Newton said. “Don’t assume anything.”
The alliance’s priorities focus on aging, children’s issues, criminal justice, health care, developmental disabilities, and homelessness, and most advocates argued that supporting their programs would save the state money in the long term — a pitch that newly elected representative Gregory agreed with. Gregory said his 14 years working as a criminal prosecutor has shown him the necessity of a well-funded safety net.
“When the system doesn’t work, people eventually end up in the criminal justice system, and I don’t mean just as the defendants, I mean as the victims too,” Gregory said. “I understand firsthand that the dollar we spend now, at the earliest age possible, or really at any age, will save us that $7, $10, $11, and more importantly will help ensure those people don’t find themselves in more dire circumstances.”
Several requests reflected the growing impact of addiction and mental health issues in the region.
Kristie Skoglund, chief operating officer of the Florida Center for Early Childhood, said the Fetal Alcohol Diagnostic Center in Sarasota, which is the only center of its type in the state, was being overwhelmed with referrals. Skoglund requested $200,000 in new funding to expand services to more children born to mothers who drank alcohol while pregnant.
“As they enter preschool and elementary school, that’s when you start to see the issues,” Skoglund said.
Many of the requests are carryovers from last year when the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland dramatically altered the legislative output and several priorities were pushed aside to respond to the tragedy.
Part of that response was allocating money to schools to provide mental health services, but those funds were not allocated to recur each year. That means the roughly $1.05 million Sarasota County Schools has used to expand access to counseling, suicide prevention and other mental health services isn’t guaranteed next year. Alliance members are urging legislators to make sure that money comes back.
Good supports the reallocation, and she emphasized the need for more significant mental health services in Florida, which consistently ranks last nationally on the amount of state mental health spending per capita.
“Mental illness and addiction go hand in hand. … When you feel it in your family, in your life, and you try to get help for it, you understand how hard it is,” Good said. “That is compounded when your family is in a financial crisis, and these are issues we need to deal with locally and on a statewide basis.”
The alliance identified 22 priorities for legislators:
$12.4 million for home- and community-based care for 1,788 senior citizens
$278,000 for restoring funding to “Drug-Free Babies”
Extending Medicaid for 132,940 people with mental illness or substance abuse problems
$1 million for Centerstone Psychiatric Residency Program to train 16 physicians a year to become psychiatrists
$320,000 to support the Early Childhood Court initiative in Sarasota
$689,000 to implement a Family Intensive Treatment program at Coastal Behavioral Health
$100,000 to expand the Children’s Crisis Team at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the Suncoast
$1.05 million in recurring funds to the Sarasota School District for mental health services
$28 million for the Florida Department of Corrections to restore residential treatment programs that were cut in May 2018
$200,000 for JFCS of the Suncoast to expand services to at-risk teenagers
$15 million to remove 1,400 people (statewide) from the Medicaid Waiver Waiting List
Adding a standard diploma track for students with severe learning disabilities
$100,000 per physician residency position to address the primary care physician shortage at Sarasota Memorial Hospital
$200,000 for the Fetal Alcohol Diagnostic Clinic
Continue funding for Florida’s Healthy Start System of Care
Fully fund the statewide staffing and challenge grant, which would provide roughly $350,000 for homeless services in Sarasota
$1.4 million to fund and staff 60 Substance Use Disorder recovery beds in Sarasota
$625,673 for expanding mental health services at Coastal Behavioral Health
Allow people with arrest records to serve as drug and alcohol recovery peer specialists
Establishing a mental health coalition to provide services for children, teens, and young adults
Additional funding for behavioral health services provided by the Department of Children and Families
Restore parental rights to parents of children older than 12 who have been in the foster system more than a year
This story comes from a partnership between the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Herald-Tribune, funded by The Patterson Foundation, to cover school readiness, attendance, summer learning, healthy readers and parent engagement. Read more stories at https://www.gradelevelreadingsuncoast.net/category/solutions-journalism-partnership/.