State workers rally and lobby at the Capitol

Hundreds of government workers rallied in Tallahassee to protest what they call a war on the middle class.  James Call reports members of the labor union representing state county and city employees roamed the halls of the state Capitol to talk to lawmakers about policies they say favor the wealthy at the expense of working people.

About 300 American Federal of State County and Municipal Employees members gathered in the morning on the Capitol steps. Some had left their homes the night before and rode buses from Miami and Collier County to be part of the event. Veteran organizer Barbara DeVane was the last in a handful of speakers to address the group before members started lobbying lawmakers.

"Always remember the words of our beloved Mother Jones who said to pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.  Fight on AFSCME!"

What AFSCME members are fighting against is an economic policy supported by the Republican leadership of the legislature and articulated by Governor Rick Scott on the campaign trail and as the state’s chief executive.

 "By reducing taxes and regulations we can create a competitive advantage for Florida businesses allowing them to grow and putting more Floridians to work. And the third is by embracing the competitive spirit and principals of limited government we can keep the cost of living low for Floridians."

Scott says his mission is to reduce the cost of living and doing business in Florida. He has championed tax cuts, slashed government spending and eliminated state jobs. Jutta Tolbert has worked ten years for the Department of Health in Sarasota. She explains the impact of those policy decisions on state employees like herself.

"Well the big thing is the raise that we haven’t gotten in six or seven years, depending on who you talk too.  And the fact they took three percent last year. So I’m basically making less than when I was originally hired."

The 2010 election of Rick Scott and a more Republican dominated legislature launched Florida on limited-government experiment. The state budget lawmakers are working on for next year will be about $4 billion smaller than the 06 budget, when the Great Recession began. Florida has grown by more than a million people since then while the legislature has reduced spending on education, healthcare, other government services and unemployment benefits. AFSCME and its allies like the AFL-CIO say it is these kinds of policies that amount to an attack on workers and the middle class. Rich Templin is with the AFL-CIO

"And we’re still dealing with the biggest problem of all, a woefully inadequate tax system where right now the poorest 20 percent are paying a tax rate of 13.9 percent in state and local taxes the middle income paying 12 and half percent.  The top 1 percent in the state of Florida are paying 2.1 percent in state and local taxes combined. We’ve got $5billion in corporate tax loopholes and giveaways and they’re saying we can’t balance the budget and we have to take it out on the backs of teachers, firefighters and state employees."

Leaders in the Legislature treat almost any talk of a tax increase as a third rail of Florida politics. Touch it and your career is over. To try to change minds, AFSCME members clad in green shirts lobbied their hometown senators and representatives in their Tallahassee offices.

Sam Neimiesier and six other panhandle government workers crowd into Pensacola Senator Greg Evers office.

"And we’re here to tell him how much we appreciate his consideration on that privatization vote."

Evers had voted against a plan to privatize 18 South Florida prisons. Unions had opposed the measure saying it would have eliminated jobs. The Senate defeated the proposal. The group didn’t get to meet with Evers but had a few minutes with his aide, Mike Bascom.

"Okay, do you have any information you want to share with him a packet or anything?"

The group’s message is that the middle class is in trouble. A 2011 report by the Pew Charitable Trust says a third of those who grew up in the middle class have slipped down the income ladder as an adult. AFSCME and others say it is because of what they call anti-government policies like the ones pursued by the legislature.  Daryl Borrawitz is a retired state employee. He explains how he thinks the Republican controlled legislature has tipped the state’s economic policies in favor of the wealthy.

"Okay, I go to Doak Campbell stadium to see a FSU football game I pay tax on the seat I sit on, up in the skyboxes guess who sit up there?  Are there taxes up there? No! I have a little jon boat I pay taxes on it. When you go on a charter boat do you pay taxes on that? No! Guess who goes on charter boats?  On and on and on. There are ways to get revenue in this state where there will be no deficit. But no one has the courage, the leadership and the vision to go after that."

Destin Senator Don Gaetz is in line to become the Senate president after the November election. He supports a policy of reducing taxes and government spending.  He says it sounds like much of the critique of the legislature’s economic policy originated in the White House.

"Actually the middle class, people who I work with and talk to and see in church and see in the grocery store every week tell me that they don’t want to have government getting a bigger slice of the pie at a time when small businesses, and they truly are the middle class, they are struggling to stay on their feet. So while the Obama campaign puts scripts in the hand of AFSCME and other unions and say there is a war on the middle class I think the war on the middle class is being waged by those who want government to take a bigger slice out of the middle class wage earner’s pocket and as Republicans we oppose that."

One AFSCME member told of Gaetz’s remark said she wasn’t surprised and that is why she and others were walking the halls of the Capitol and introducing themselves to lawmakers.