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State legislative fears influence abortion expense vote

Mark Parker

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Councilmember Richie Floyd began exploring the initiative in April 2022. Screengrab.

While a proposed general fund allocation to help St. Petersburg residents pay for abortion-related travel expenses and services was only $50,000, its potential city impacts were immense.

Last month, two state lawmakers wrote a letter threatening to block funding just for the “city’s contemplated assistance” to the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund (TBAF). City Council Chair Brandi Gabbard said it amounted to blackmail.

However, the council did discuss the measure at length during Thursday’s meeting and listened to dozens of public speakers express their personal beliefs on the subject. Although several council members expressed their personal support for those forced to travel out-of-state to receive an abortion, they also feared becoming the next Disney and facing severe repercussions and prolonged legal battles.

The measure failed 6-2.

Councilmembers Richie Floyd, who proposed the funding, and Deborah Figgs-Sanders voted in favor. Gabbard and Councilmembers Gina Driscoll, Ed Montanari, Lisset Hanewicz, and John Muhammad voted against the measure.

“I have a lot of very complicated feelings about this,” Gabbard said. “It’s my moral code versus my practicality and my realistic – I know what kind of state we live in.”

She explained that city officials arduously aligned the proposal with current statutes during the committee process. The legal team previously advised council members could commit $50,000 to help residents pay for travel expenses.

Gabbard also noted that new legislation recently arose during an ongoing, whirlwind legislative session, which muddies the legal pathway. The Senate recently passed the “Heartbeat Protection Act” banning abortions after six weeks.

Floyd addressed the oft-repeated argument that public funding should not support controversial initiatives. He relayed his displeasure with tax dollars going to “bomb poor people in the Middle East” or imprisoning “brown people at a higher percentage than white people.”

“I believe that most people in St. Petersburg don’t agree with their money specifically going towards investigating, prosecuting and potentially imprisoning doctors and people seeking health care,” Floyd added. “Because abortions are not going to stop when they pass this bill. What we’re going to have is a further growth of the police state.”

Hanewicz, an attorney, called abortion-related debates the nation’s most divisive but said those discussions are a critical tenet of a free society. Despite the resolution stating that city officials would abide by state law, she said a judge would ultimately decide that interpretation.

In addition, Hanewicz relayed that council members could potentially face removal for not following state statutes. Governor Ron DeSantis removed Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren from office after he indicated he would not enforce abortion restrictions.

That was not the last time a council member mentioned Warren’s name.

While the funding initiative failed 6-2, another resolution supporting residents’ rights to make reproductive health decisions passed by the same margin. Screengrab.

Hanewicz explained that counties and municipalities would not exist without states, and lawmakers can increase or decrease “home rule” as they deem fit through preemption. She and Montanari noted that Senate Bill 300, which will likely soon become law, prohibits state-approved funds – including city taxes – from supporting abortion travel expenses.

“If we’re not preempted with the current state law, we’re going to be preempted with this (SB300) because the language is even tighter,” he said.

Gabbard relayed that the council’s proposal was the topic of multiple discussions during a recent trip to Tallahassee. She said representatives from both parties explicitly stated the city would face extensive repercussions over $50,000 in TBAF funding.

“Disney is living through punitive leadership,” Gabbard said. “Andrew Warren is living through punitive leadership. And personally, I’ve got a lot of work to do for this city.

“I’ve been staying up at night worrying and thinking about this because … I want to stand with the women of St. Petersburg.”

Even if the resolution passed, it would still need Mayor Ken Welch’s approval. City Administrator Rob Gerdes reiterated administrative concerns “related to process and precedent.”

He noted several other “worthy” healthcare providers could request city funding if the resolution passed. However, Welch reacted strongly on social media to the March 22 letter signed by Rep. Berny Jacques, R-Seminole, and Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Riverview.

At the time, Welch wrote local officials had the “duty to review and debate all issues of importance to our city without regard to threats and attempts to intimidate.”

In a statement Thursday, he said that “vigorous debate and the free and open discussion of ideas and differing opinions in the public square are crucial for our community to prosper.”

“In St. Petersburg, the State of Florida and nationwide, there are passionate beliefs and advocates on both sides of this important debate,” Welch added. “It is our duty as Americans to protect and ensure that all voices have an opportunity to be heard, as was just carried out in our Council Chambers.”

Gerdes noted that Welch did support a previous resolution supporting residents’ right to make reproductive health decisions – including abortion care. It also requested that city administrators withhold funding “for any action or activity that would abrogate or criminalize the rights of its residents to make reproductive health decisions.”

That passed 6-2, with Driscoll and Montanari voting against the measure.

“I think we can all agree that as a society, we need to demonstrate greater value and appreciation for the women and girls in our lives and our community,” Muhammed said.

 

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Mike

    April 8, 2023at9:04 pm

    Richie Floyd needs to find a new line of work. His “platform” is humiliating. His impotence as a legislator is even worse. The people of st Petersburg deserve better.

  2. Avatar

    John Donovan

    April 7, 2023at3:50 pm

    Abortion is legal in Florida and under recent proposals it will still be legal. Raise the money privately, if you must, don’t use public tax dollars. I have never understood how some P.O.C have been so willing to accommodate this depopulation scheme. Or the political party synonymous with the same. They might check other peoples motivation.

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