As a Zika outbreak hits South Florida, Republicans are trying to deflect blame for their inaction, from the entire party's obstruction in Congress, to Marco Rubio, to Rick Scott. While Congress took several more weeks of vacation instead of addressing Zika, Rubio and Scott are pretending to have a sudden interest in the problem. Both have even tried to blame the President, who asked for funding from Congress months ago but was ignored.
While we can't know if the problem could have been prevented, Republicans in Florida have done their part to pave an easier path for a Zika outbreak as well.
In 2013, Mother Jones published a detailed article on how the Tea Party and Rick Scott devastated "big government" in Florida by doing away with things like infrastructure (turning away funding for a high-speed rail project that was years in the making), refusing Medicaid expansion, throwing up roadblocks to Obamacare, cutting water supply programs, and more.
Among the things that got axed as tax dollars went instead to corporations and were used as "incentives" for jobs, many of which never materialized, was a program that would have come in handy right about now.
It used to be that a few government expenditures were immune from partisan disagreement—cops, potholes, mosquito control. But not anymore. Most of Florida's mosquito abatement work is done at the local level, where independent taxing districts are responsible for the bulk of the eradication efforts. These districts have become targets of tea party wrath. Last year, a trio of conservative activists dubbing themselves the "Mosquitoteers" challenged several members on the Anastasia Mosquito Control Board in St. Augustine. They campaigned on a plan to cut mosquito control taxes and the district's budget and bought a billboard reading: "Smash mosquitoes and the friends of Obama." Never mind, notes board member Vivian Browning, that the seats are nonpartisan: "Mosquitoes, they don't care if you're Republican, Democrat, or independent. They can eat you, infect you, kill you, regardless of party." One of the Mosquitoteers, a reserve sheriff's deputy, defeated a University of Florida biology professor who is an expert in mosquito-borne diseases—a concern in a state that has regular outbreaks of West Nile virus and has seen an uptick in dengue fever.
The state Legislature has also done its part to liberate mosquitoes from the shackles of big government. In 2011, the Republican-dominated Legislature slashed the state's contribution to mosquito control by 40 percent. Florida A&M University closed one of two major mosquito research labs in the state after the Legislature axed $500,000 in research funds. Public health officials succeeded in restoring money to keep the lab open, only to see Scott kill it with a stroke of his veto pen. Along with other budget cuts, the closure halved the number of Florida scientists working on mosquito control.
"There's maybe a perfect storm of sorts," says Joseph Conlon, a technical adviser to the American Mosquito Control Association in Florida. "You've got the government rightfully trying to cut budgets across the board, but down here in Florida, the place would be uninhabitable without mosquito control."
....Florida's internationally renowned mosquito control system took a half century to build, but only three years to decimate. Likewise with public health, says Nan Rich, who fought the cuts in the state Senate: "The infrastructure is being destroyed and responding to public health crises becomes more difficult," she says. "I shudder to think if what happened with Hurricane Sandy had happened here."
Yes, responding to a public health crisis like Zika without the needed infrastructure in place is something we no longer have to imagine, thanks to Republicans in the legislature and Rick Scott. And thanks to Marco Rubio and the rest of his party in Washington who are standing in the way of funding, plan B isn't going so well either.