House leaders plan for a bleaker future
House Speaker Marco Rubio and budget chair Ray Sansom said Monday they will propose giving Gov. Charlie Crist new power to tap two reserve funds that, until now, have been off limits in keeping the state's budget out of the red. The announcement Monday was in part a concession to Democrats, who have repeatedly urged use of the billions in reserve, and partly an acknowledgement that the economy likely will get worse before it gets better.
Under an amendment to be proposed by Sansom, Crist could tap up to half of the money in the state's Budget Stabilization Fund (about $700-million) and another $1-billion in the Lawton Chiles Endowment, which uses tobacco settlement money to fund a variety of human service programs. Technically, Crist would have to ask permission from a panel known as the Legislative Budget Commission, which approves mid-year budget adjustments. The BSF is in the state Constitution (Article 3, Sec. 19), but gives the Legislature power to set criteria for withdrawals from the fund.
"We do need to be in a position to react rapidly," Rubio said. A less obvious aspect of this plan (which, by the way, has not been shopped with the Senate) is that it would allow Crist to use reserves without having to publicly declare the state is in deficit or to declare a budget emergency, which state law now requires.