At first it came on like an abstract notion. Sure, we could smell the urine and exhaust just starting to emanate from the cracking societal tarmac and faintly hear the distant rattle of pennies in empty pork-and-beans cans, but - thanks to our innate ability to point and laugh while never feeling - we left the signs of Florida's coming poor-pocalypse hanging in a burlap sack at the end of a stick in the closet. "Fuck Rick Scott!" we laughed while swigging from our moderately priced box of downsized wine, numbing our brains into not considering how bad it might get. This is Happytown™, after all. There's no crying in Happytown™.
But just a few short weeks into Tallahassee's legislative bully dance and it's become gravely apparent that there are definite causes for worry, causes it won't be easy to undo should the state ever snap out of its Scott-holm syndrome and return to, well, relative bearability. The war on the working class presently being waged in the name of creating jobs - while simultaneously killing jobs - came into full view last week as a couple of concerns specifically attached to people who are just squeaking by came into full view. And that view is ugly.
On March 25, Florida's House of Representatives voted 73-40 in favor of removing automatic deductions for union dues from the paychecks of state workers. Republicans were characteristically magnanimous about their decision to further squelch the power of unions in a right-to-work state, with bloated foreclosure fiasco State Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, telling The Palm Beach Post that, hey, it's really just about keeping the government out of private matters (cough). "There is arrogance but the arrogance is on those who clearly don't believe that [the] membership of labor unions can make the decisions about membership," he added.
And then there's the arrogance of Twitter. Just one day before Friday's House vote, Grover Norquist, the inexplicably influential president of fetid teabag Americans for Tax Reform, took to his computer to spell out a defining factoid: "FYI. Withheld union dues fund half of Dem campaigns in Florida." Well, our friends at politifact.com took issue with that statement and ran it through their trusty old "Truth-O-Meter." Guess what? Not true. Of the total $332 million that Floridian candidates received in last year's race, only $89 million went to Democrats, and of that only $10.2 million in labor dollars went to Democrats - half of one, 11 percent of the other?
Not content to merely muzzle whatever bargaining power those without yachts have left, Republicans are also hard at work to make your local barista a little less happy soft-shoeing the tightrope of minimum wage. You may be aware that Florida Legal Services and the National Employment Law Project (NELP) have already filed a lawsuit against the state for not raising the minimum wage in 2011; in 2004, voters overwhelmingly supported a state constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage annually to adapt to cost-of-living increases. According to NELP, the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation has been handshaking behind the scenes to readdress the minimum wage issue, even as the case remains in litigation. The fruits of their labor (cough, again) can be found in HB 1425, a quick-moving bill that aims to go against the state constitution and install a new minimum wage equation that could actually decrease minimum wage to reflect deflation. Had the federal government not raised the national minimum wage to $7.25 in 2009, Florida workers might have had to take a dip down to $7.16. Why should this concern you? Just ask attorney Bill Davis who is fighting the legal case against the state.
"Fortunately the legislature can't rewrite the Constitution," he says in a press release. "But that they would even want to cut pay for Florida's minimum wage earners just shows how profoundly out of touch the legislature and our millionaire governor are."
See you in the bread lines.
Speaking of hobo horror, it's not often that you get to see the all-stars of Central Florida's homeless services community collected in one room, but on Mar. 24 at the Heart of Florida United Way's headquarters, we did. We sat literally right next to Homeless Services Network's executive director, Cathy Jackson, and her requisite stacks of Post-It-marked reports, which rested only feet away from Health Care Center for the Homeless CEO Bakari Burns, whose dapper three-piece suit was reflected by his iPad, possibly an iPad 2, which intermittently distracted him from a presentation by Keith Theriot, program manager for the city's Housing & Community Development Department.
The heavy hitters were meeting because the city of Orlando and Orange County need to come up with a plan on how they're going to battle homelessness for the next five years. It's an ambitious mission not done purely out of the goodness of their collective heart; there's a report due every five years to the department of Housing and Urban Development, and they're already late. The main purpose of the meeting, then, was to identify the most pressing needs of the homeless today - needs which Theriot assures us are much different than the ones reflected in the last 400-plus page report turned in to HUD.
"The scenario has completely changed," he said. "2011 is very different than 2005."
Why? It's the economy, stupid. Theriot guesses that the newly unemployed are "90 percent of the new faces of homelessness."
Heart of Florida United Way's Broc Rosser gave some empirical backing to the gloom: Since 2007, annual requests of his organization for rent and mortgage assistance have jumped from 14,000 to 21,000; utility assistance requests have risen from 30,000 to 45,000; and food assistance requests have gone from 3,500 to 6,000.
It wasn't long before the PowerPoint was abandoned for the sake of a general "we're-fucked" sounding-board session. Jackson said the Seminole-Orange-Osceola "continuum of care" faces a shortage of beds for homeless people on all fronts, but most strikingly, there are only 19 permanent supportive housing beds for homeless families. She says that falls far short and estimates the need to be no fewer than 100 beds and possibly as many as 300 beds. "Homeless needs for families … we all know, is the experience from hell right now," she said.
The slash-happy atmosphere in Washington retained its status as the elephant in the room until minute 44 of the meeting, when one attendee mentioned that the federal com- munity development block grants (CDBG) to which many homeless service monies are attached are looking at a potential 62 percent decrease in funding. Other U.S. representatives have proposed getting rid of CDBG entirely.
"All of this [planning] could be for naught," Theriot admitted.
Whenever a public transportation system can command all-capital-letters without actually being an acronym, you know you've got something special. So it should come as little surprise that LYMMO, the free downtown-only bus system partly managed by LYNX, is set to expand in all directions, most immediately into the Parramore area in 2013 and, later in the decade, as far north, east, south, and west, as the Florida Hospital, Summerlin Avenue, the Orlando Regional Medical Center and Westmoreland Avenue, respectively.
The city nor LYNX have kept this a secret - in fact, they've held more than 20 public hearings on the plans since this January alone, though judging by the meeting we attended on Mar. 23, they may be already scraping the bottom of the public-interest barrel. That evening at the J.B. Callahan Neighborhood Center in Parramore, we encountered only two audience members and five staffers, but the LYMMO folks continued their presentation unfazed, and we openly professed our admiration at their respect for democracy.
And desegregation! That's because LYMMO will eventually share some of the same roads as privileged cars due to space restraints, but in the process may start charging 50 cents to a dollar - a decision that's still a ways off, considering that a federally mandated impact study is still in progress. "You have to make sure you're not going to misplace bald eagles or manatees," said LYNX spokesman Matt Friedman, to which we laughed, to which Friedman was silent. "That may sound crazy to you, but that literally can blow up an entire project," he said, and continued talking, but we were by then captivated by images of bald eagles strapped with dynamite, in a kamikaze dive towards a fleet of shiny new hybrid buses.
Or, the end of the world.