Progressive activists rally in Ybor City for Florida legislative changes

03/05/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Awake the State, Awake Tampa, Education reform, school choice, Medicaid expansion, restoration of rights, 2014 legislative session


Awake the State organizer Chuck Terzian rallies support for social issues in Ybor City's Centennial Park.

photo by Janelle Irwin

About 75 people from groups representing about a half dozen interests rallied on the first day of the legislative session in support of social issues. Awake the State organizers demanded changes to things like healthcare and poverty during a three hour rally Tuesday in Ybor City’s Centennial Park.

Just hours after Florida Governor Rick Scott gave his annual State of the State Address in Tallahassee, activists were already responding to some of the issues he didn’t talk about. One is federally-funded Medicaid expansion that so far has been rejected by the state legislature. Chuck Terzian is an Awake the State organizer from St. Petersburg.

“Five people a day die in Florida from a lack of access to healthcare and our legislators, the Republicans in Tallahassee have voted and those deaths are on their hands, they really are.”

Expansion of Medicaid was on the minds of almost everyone at the rally because it’s central to working class individuals struggling to break into the middle class. Angelo Escano is a full-time worker at WalMart. As such, he has access to healthcare, but if he didn’t, if his hours were cut, he’d be among those who fall into a coverage gap where they don’t qualify for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, but also don’t qualify for Medicaid. Escano is also supporting efforts to raise the minimum wage. A federal bill would make that $10.10, but many activists want state lawmakers to take initiative to boost the state’s wages as well.

“Right now people can’t live on their own and pay bills by their selves, they’ve got to get loans from their friends to pay their own bills like I do right now. I can’t make it paycheck to paycheck.”

During opening statements on the House floor Tuesday, Speaker Will Weatherford touted school choice programs as representing freedom and opportunity. Proponents of school choice support publicly-funded vouchers for students to use toward private school tuition as well as publicly funded charter schools run by private companies. Critics, like Pasco County middle school teacher Valerie Smith, argue those funds should stay within public schools.

“How about on enhancing programs? If we’re presuming that our students are better served by more rigorous programs, why aren’t there financial incentives and financial support being provided and offered to districts to help create more rigorous programs?”

Smith says she and many of her colleagues are also worried about tough teacher assessments that are based on students’ standardized test scores. Smith calls the state’s transition from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to Common Core a perfect storm of changes. She hopes lawmakers will take advice from district superintendents to hold off on teacher grading rubrics until changes have been better vetted by education leaders.

“I think our legislators are either choosing not to heed warnings issued by educators or they’re deliberately seeking to create as much stress and chaos and confusion as possible.”

Activists are also concerned about some environmental issues. Melissa Mann is with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. She’s working with volunteers to picket Duke Energy for opposing net metering that allows people with solar panels to sell energy back to utility companies. She said the stance is a deterrence to companies that sell solar panels.

“Florida has the third best solar potential in the country and we just saw a 60% or so increase in solar jobs, but the solar panels aren’t being installed here in Florida. They’re being installed elsewhere which doesn’t really make sense in the Sunshine State.”

And Awake the State organizer Terzian is also concerned about a lack of environmental oversight by state officials. Terzian is also worried about proposals to allow injection wells that store toxic wastewater found during exploratory drilling.

“And they want to inject wastewater under our water table. Like that’s not going to rise up and get into our drinking water and poison us. We are people. We deserve rights well over any corporation trying to get rid of its waste.”

Civil rights activists have a list of demands as well. Niki Johnson is with the Florida Rights Restoration Council. She is working to convince state lawmakers to return to pre-Rick Scott policies that allowed ex-felons to have their rights restored immediately after completed prison sentences, probation and paying fines. Under the Scott administration, returning citizens must wait at least five years before having rights restored, including the right to vote, and that time frame is often much longer. Johnson is personally affected. She said she spent years on the wrong path because health concerns caused her to give up on life.

“But I had placed myself in a life cycle that was hard to break. So in 2009 I did a self-arrest in the Pinellas County jail – I had a warrant for two years – did a self-arrest and said, hey, I want to make something out of my life. I have children. I have a 16-year old. God blessed me with a three-year old about three years ago. They are my new found drive and determination in life. So, I want to leave something for them in this world besides a criminal record.”

All of these issues are considered unlikely to be supported by the legislature’s Republican majority. The legislative session is 60 days and activists plan to continue pushing for changes. Organizers for Awake the State are holding a training session for activists next Tuesday at JJ’s Café in Ybor City and will plan more actions at that meeting.

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