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Clearly, though, Barreiro made mistakes. According to his divorce agreement, payments were supposed to be made through the courts. And despite his claims, there were long periods in which neither Barreiro nor his family sent any money to his ex-wife. (Barreiro also erred by failing to report the child support debt on his financial-disclosure forms when he first ran for office in 1998. He was sanctioned by the state's ethics commission and admonished by his colleagues in the House.)
In 1999 Barreiro stopped disputing the amount and paid off the $22,000 notice.
When the child support story first broke in the Miami Herald,Nicole Barreiro refused to talk about the controversy. She was eighteen years old at the time and says she was hounded by the Herald, wanting to know how she felt about being abandoned by her father.
She's 21 now and has gained a little perspective. "No, I don't feel he abandoned me," she tells me by phone from Wisconsin. "I don't feel he was there for the most important parts of my life, but at this point I'm not really blaming him. Things happen, and I know he loves me."
She says her mother had a rough time financially, and she wishes Barreiro had done more to support them. "We struggled, but we made it through it," she says. "I'm sure it made me stronger."
More important to her now is the relationship she has with her father. "We're not as close as we could be," she admits. "We're not as close as we probably should be, but now that I'm older and I understand the situation, I can see it getting better." She is in Florida this week for spring break, during which she'll see her dad. I asked her if she thought it was odd that he has gained a reputation in the legislature for being very progressive on child-development issues while his own dealings with Nicole and her mother leave much to be desired.
"I don't think he's a hypocrite," Nicole maintains. "I think what happened between him and me made him realize what is important." Whether he is championing these causes today as a way of atoning for his behavior in the past Nicole says she doesn't know, but it does seem likely that Barreiro's dedication to children's issues is in part the result of his own experiences.
Gustavo Barreiro's legislative district is one of the most diverse in the state. It runs from the Deering Estates in South Miami-Dade to Lincoln Road on Miami Beach and includes parts of Little Havana, Coconut Grove, Key Biscayne, Brickell, and downtown Miami.
This year Barreiro was elected chairman of Miami-Dade's 27-member delegation. It will be his job to unite the delegation around certain key issues and hold them together. The county, he points out, has some key players in powerful posts, including Rep. Carlos Lacasa, chairman of the House appropriations committee; Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who will take the lead in redrawing all the congressional boundaries in the state based on the latest U.S. Census figures; Rep. Renier Diaz de la Portilla, chairman of the committee overseeing K-12 education; and Sen. Ron Silver, dean of the legislature and chairman of the committee that will decide spending on health care issues.
"It would be a shame if we do not use the positions we have to make sure Miami-Dade County gets its fair share of the state budget," Barreiro says.
The state's $43 billion budget will be the most vexing problem for legislators. Without a state income tax, Florida is almost entirely dependent on the money it collects in sales tax. As the economy begins to slow down and folks begin to spend less, the impact on the state budget can be severe.
Last year the legislature had almost three billion dollars in new revenue to dole out in tax cuts or new spending. This year initial budget estimates forecast there will be less than one billion dollars in new revenue. Certainly one billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, but when you factor in cost-of-living increases and salary hikes for state employees, that number begins to come down sharply. Also, the state is looking at a major shortfall in Medicaid, owing to an increase in costs (particularly in the area of prescription drugs) and eligibility (more people are qualified for the program than state officials previously had estimated). Some officials predict the state might need to come up with one billion dollars more than it previously allotted for Medicaid.
Further complicating the matter, the governor is pushing for a tax cut, and there are at least 1600 new projects currently unfunded in this year's proposed budget. Almost none of those projects will make it into the state budget, but for those few that do, the money has to come from somewhere.
The result: Existing programs are coming under attack as never before.
A preliminary budget already has been released; among the casualties is New World School of the Arts, which is slated to lose 50 percent of its funding, or about $500,000. The county was hoping to receive five million dollars for cleanup and dredging of the Miami River and another ten million dollars for the empowerment zone. As of now there is no money in the budget for either project. Florida's PBS television stations are having their budgets slashed, as are groups battling diabetes, epilepsy, and breast cancer. The University of Miami's School of Nursing is losing money as are programs designed to help poor, pregnant women receive prenatal care.