Thrasher, Gianoulis mix it up
Candidates for District 8 Senate seat get a few jabs at each other
A televised hour-long debate Monday night between incumbent District 8 State Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and his Democrat challenger, former Channel 4 news anchor Deborah Gianoulis, allowed voters to assess two dynamic but vastly different individuals.
Both candidates fielded questions on education funding, Senate Bill 6, Medicaid, the quality of their experience, water issues, growth, property insurance, immigration, how to bring jobs to Florida and unfunded mandates to local governments.
They were polite to one another, though each got in a zinger or two at the other's expense.
Gianoulis several times emphasized her position of being a listener who wants to change the "rancor and partisanship" of the Legislature.
"Decisions made in Tallahassee profoundly affect families right here," she said.
Thrasher said that during his 11 months in the Senate, "I tried my best to make a difference. We need a strong voice from Nassau to Volusia counties. Experience and leadership matter."
He served as a Clay County School Board member, was elected to the House in 1992 and served two terms, becoming Speaker of the House during his last two years. He was elected in 2009 to finish the term of the late Sen. Jim King.
"I'm for limited government, low taxes and low regulations," he said. "We're at a crossroads in America. The Democratic Congress and Obama have put over $1 billion in unfunded mandates on Florida."
Gianoulis said she opposed Thrasher's controversial Senate Bill 6, which would have significantly changed Florida's education by introducing performance pay based on test scores.
That bill passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist in April.
"(Thrasher) did not bring a consensus of people around the table (when he introduced that bill)," Gianoulis said. "We need accountability, but he could have spoken to teachers, parents, local educators and school boards. You really can change a culture with consensus."
She said legislators should start thinking about what is best of Florida's students.
Thrasher said the bill was opposed by teacher unions, "which prefer the status quo. They don't want to change. No where else in America do you work for three years and then have a lifetime guarantee of a job. (Tenure) is one of the biggest obstacles to education reform in the country."
Gianoulis said she wished it were so simple to say reform was a union problem.
"But life is more complicated than that," she said.
Thrasher also said that, even though SB 6 failed, "it helped and contributed to the conversation about education reform. It's a healthy conversation."
One question said 72 unfunded mandates cost St. Johns County $158 million dollars per year.
What would they do about them?
Gianoulis pointedly said that SB6 was a "huge unfunded mandate. It would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars in new tests. If Gov. Crist hadn't vetoed the bill, we'd right now be looking for the money."
Thrasher said the money was there.
"Obamacare will cost $1 billion," he said. "Perhaps it will be defeated in the court system or unraveled by Congress."
He challenged Gianoulis' contention that he wasn't a listener.
"I'll listen to any idea. Especially about how to create jobs, not increase taxes or how to fight a litigation system that wants to impede the progress of small businesses," he said.
Gianoulis admitted that Thrasher has spent more time in Tallahassee that she had.
"But I've been working in my community, listening and working with people. I'll give a fair representation of the facts and do so with integrity. We need new voices, fresh faces and no sacred cows."
Both agreed that Medicare is a great danger to the state's financial stability. It may eventually eat 30 percent of the state's income and continue to grow, especially after Obamacare adds millions of previously uninsured people to the program.
Thrasher said the Legislature will have to explore what to do with it, perhaps vouchers or regional managed care.
"(Finding solutions) will certainly be a priority this year," he said. But he also said he was proud of his work on previous budgets. "Last year we had a $6 billion shortfall and kept health care funding levels the same."
Gianoulis wants the Legislature to "take the handcuffs off school districts and let them have some flexibility in how they spend money. Twenty-five to 30 percent of their spending is mandated by the state."
Thrasher said he would support an immigration control bill similar to the one passed in Arizona.
"This is a national issue coming from the Obama Administration. We will have legislation like that in Florida. It's appropriate that we fight the federal government on behalf of states' rights under the 10th Amendment to the Constitution. It's despicable what Obama has done to states' rights."
Gianoulis said she didn't think Florida had the same immigration problem as Arizona.
Thrasher countered, "Talk to people in South Florida and they'd have a different view."
Gianoulis said her family had come here undocumented a generation ago and, "I have sympathy for people to come here to work."
She said small businesses are the engines of growth, and she would like to see easier credit for small businesses, make the Port of Jacksonville a job engine and see that St. Augustine's 450th birthday is truly a major event.
Thrasher said he's standing by free market principles, wants tort reform, fewer regulations and a state governor who will be working for Florida.
One sensed that Thrasher had little love for Charlie Crist.
"Conservative values are the foundation of our American values," he said.
Gianoulis said voters had a clear choice of styles for their representation.
"I want to bring our ideas to Tallahassee rather than having Tallahassee bringing its ideas back to us," she said.See Wednesday's Record for coverage of the