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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Budget double-talk/debate redux

Only a few non lawmakers/media types in the Capitol today. Why come? The debate over the $66.5b budget won't have any really new points. What to watch for: Pithy quotes and how much Republicans and Democrats manage to contradict themselves to score political points against one another.

Watch the House. If Democrats are smart and organized, they're likely to pause before voting on both the budget and the tobacco-tax bill. That way, it ensures Republicans take the plunge first. It also could add a little drama and, perhaps initially, a defeat on one of the bills before someone moves to reconsider.

The Democrats will look like hypocrites for screaming for years for more revenues for the state, but they'll vote against the budget because it doesn't raise the right kinds of taxes (i.e., corporate "loophole" closures). It's particularly notable in the Senate where, despite Democrats voting for the Senate version of the budget, they'll vote against the final product, which is $900 million MORE than the original Senate spending plan. True, higher-ed is cut a little more. But healthcare spending has improved.

If the House budget debate is any indication, the Republicans will fall all over themselves today to say that the cigarette tax increase is a "surcharge" and that the "fee increases" on driver's and sportsmen aren't tax hikes (even though a big chunk of the "fee" money goes into the general budget and not particular services from which the fees are derived).

What's more, they'll boast that they don't raise school property taxes. Indeed. But they raided so much money from school districts that they'll now give local boards the "option" to raise a quarter mill tax ($25 per $100,000 of value). So yes, Victoria, there isn't a Santa Claus when it comes to taxes. Well, maybe Barack Obama, whose stimulus plan was bashed by Republicans before they embraced it and pumped $5 billion of the money in the budget next year and $4 billion this year. Republicans aren't taking $444mfor more unemployment comp benefits. But Crist holds hope that they'll still take the money in the future.

Republicans will insist that they're spending more per pupil next year than this. Last May, when legislators left the Capitol, per-student spending was set at $6,997. But the economy was so bad that Crist ordered a de facto cut that was ratified this June, making per-student spending $6,845 this year for the whole year. Now, the per-student number will be $6,873. Technically an increase, technically a decrease. Remember: the board of education recommended $7,397 and the gov, initially, $7,044.

Then, there's the issue of pay cuts. The Legislature will trim by 2 percent the salaries of those who earn more than $45,000 yearly (higher ed is exempt). But it's not cutting contractor pay, even though the payments are subject to annual appropriation of the Legislature. Republicans say there's an impairment of contract issue preventing them from cutting vendor pay. Democrats say that's bunk.

State workers are howling that they haven't had a pay increase in three years, while private-sector workers have seen their salaries rise. Unmentioned: the $1k bonus they got three years ago and the lush health plans and free-health insurance premiums for 26k of the 120k state workers. Also, the 2 percent pay cuts will keep the insurance rates from rising.

Compare the salary situation to the private sector, where layoffs, pay cuts, furloughs and rising health-insurance rates are far more common. On balance, it looks like everyone's in the same boat.

-- Marc Caputo

[Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 5:59pm]


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