Anti-poverty lobbyist skeptical as 2017 legislative session opens in Tallahassee
Happy birthday: Karen Woodall celebrates another trip around the sun.

Karen Woodall, Florida Center for Fuscal and Economic Policy

Poverty appeared to matter as the Florida Legislature opened its 2017 regular session Tuesday. Gov. Rick Scott, during his State of the State speech, recalled his impoverished youth and the importance of jobs to lift Floridians out of economic despair.

Surely, music to Karen Woodall‘s ears? Now at the Florida Center for Economic and Fiscal Policy, she’s spent 37 years lobbying in Tallahassee on behalf of the poor.

In fact, she wasn’t impressed. We caught up with Woodall in the Capitol rotunda following the speech. The following interview was lightly edited for style and length.

Q: Hey, we’re talking about poverty here in the governor’s State of the State. Encouraged?

A: Unfortunately, particularly this year, it seems that the conversations about poverty have to do with attacking poor people. We have bills to cut people off food stamps where the staff analysis says the majority of the people impacted will be children. We have bills to cut people’s temporary cash assistance the first time they commit some violation, without ever asking what are those violations — it could be missing a meeting, or not filling out a form. We’re talking about evictions. We have bills filed to block grant Medicaid, which is going to severely impact not only very, very low income and vulnerable people in this state, but it’s going to cripple the health care industry.

There are a lot of other areas of poverty. So many people are working, yet still struggling. There just seems to be, over and over and over again, a denial. It’s like don’t ask, don’t tell. We want to talk about the symptoms without digging really deep into the causes.

A: When the governor stands up there and tells the House, you don’t know what it’s like to be poor — what do you make of that?

A: It’s probably true for a lot of people. I would submit it’s not the point. Rather than talking about having been poor at a time when most people were poor, it would be better to take action.

Q: You’re talking about the governor there?

A: I’m talking about the governor making such statements. If he were out there fighting to increase the minimum wage, to make it a living wage; if he were out there fighting for health care coverage for all low-income people. Again, the majority of people on the Medicaid program now are below the poverty level, so even if you’re at poverty, you can’t qualify. Let’s see some affordable housing.

The proof is in the pudding. Words are nice, but actions are what really indicate what your priorities are. The budget is a blueprint for our priorities.

Q: And he wants to transfer two-thirds of the affordable housing trust funds.

A: Exactly. While increasing some specific programs, but crippling the ability for the state to fund low-income housing.

Our tax system is now the third most regressive tax system in the country. You can’t continue, year after year, to give away recurring revenues while you’re the third-largest state and already at the bottom, and claim to care about the social infrastructure of the state. Jobs are critical. Everybody needs jobs. But if you’re building low-income, no-benefits jobs, that doesn’t really help lift people out of poverty. In order for people to work, they need to have good education, they need to have child care, they need to have housing. Those things all go together. It’s not rocket science.

Q: So, encouraged, discouraged as the session opens?

A: Where I am encouraged is, I do believe that more people are paying attention to what’s going on in the state and in the country —

Q: More people in this building or outside this building?

A: More people outside this building. And that is who we need. (Legislators) pretty much know what I’m going to say when I stand up to testify. We need their constituents. We need folks around the state who are impacted by these policy decisions to, if they can’t come up here, make phone calls, send emails, go to their district offices. That’s what’s going to turn the tide. There’s talk from the speaker of wanting to take control back from lobbyists. Well, these are regular folks who are out there who are constituents. I hope, and I feel, that they are, beginning to speak up.

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.


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