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Federal stimulus doesn't fix it all up

Florida is bleeding money. Washington steps in with a $12.2 billion stimulus package. Problem solved, right?

Not in the Florida Senate.

As soon as the promise of federal money became a reality, Senate President Jeff Atwater began worrying that lawmakers might take the easy way out of Florida's financial crisis.

Serious talk of scouring the $63 billion state budget for waste could get sidetracked. And the thorough review of sales-tax exemptions or an increase in the cigarette tax — ideas the Legislature has been reluctant to tackle — might die an early death.

Atwater warned of "an opportunity lost'' if legislators decide that they "don't need to look at the other alternatives right now because we'll come out of it by then."

Atwater faces two hurdles to keep lawmakers on task during the 60-day legislative session that begins Tuesday: The staunchly antitax Florida House and Gov. Charlie Crist. Crist has consistently raised expectations about the stimulus package and said it should help plug the more than $5 billion hole in the state budget — and quiet the call for tax increases.

"This will be a bridge to Florida's brighter future when our economy actually starts to turn around. And I can't wait for that for our people," Crist said after President Obama approved the stimulus package.

With such differences of perception — a Senate leader pushing for tax reform, a governor focused on federal aid — a clash seems all but guaranteed this session, an undercurrent likely to affect the debate on everything from education to health care.

Republican senators have already begun openly questioning the governor's budget numbers, his economic development plans, his environmental policies and his support for the stimulus package.

Atwater said he welcomed the extra federal money to help build roads or ensure Medicaid patients can see doctors. But, he said, the Legislature needs to be cautious about increasing the size of government with federal money that will only last for a short while.

Crist has already figured the stimulus money into his budget proposal for next year, using broad-brush numbers and leaving the details to the Legislature. Crist has the luxury of basing his budget proposal on state revenue estimates that will likely be outdated by the time the budget is finalized at the end of the legislative session.

Economists meet again this month and are expected to forecast a continued precipitous decline in tax collections for the current budget year. So legislators, by session's end, might wind up passing a budget that will look stingier than the one Crist proposed — for the third year in a row.

"There's a level of frustration," said Democratic Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach.

"These are problems not answered with the same tag lines and tired old phrases. You can't simply 'tighten your belt' and this goes away."

A collision between Crist's optimism and the Senate's pessimism may also be politically charged. During the special January lawmaking session to fill a $2.4 billion budget hole, Crist vetoed some budget cuts to environmental programs. Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales and other legislators felt Crist misled them about his vetoes.

Alexander suggested Crist was "grandstanding'' and acting like a "demagogue."

Alexander said he's putting the incident from January behind him. But he says he needs answers now, not rose-colored glasses.

"The governor said this stimulus package will be good for Florida," Alexander said.

"I take him at his word."

Federal stimulus doesn't fix it all up 02/26/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 4:54pm]
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