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Florida's budget news gets worse

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers began a grim budget-cutting session Monday with more bad news: The state's deficit is likely $100-million bigger than expected, and Florida leads the nation in food stamp requests.

Senate President Jeff Atwater opened the two-week budget cutting session with a list of "sobering statistics" that show Florida with a record number of home foreclosures, food stamp recipients and job losses that are placing more demands on state services, sending the budget deeper into the red.

"The gravity of the current fiscal situation is clear," Atwater, a North Palm Beach Republican, told the Senate. "We are simply spending money we do not have."

Among the new expenses is the 49 percent surge in food stamp recipients over the past 18 months. A whopping 50,000 new enrollees in December pushed Florida's total caseload to 1.7-million, said Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon.

What's worse, he said, is that many are "not people who are used to applying."

In Southwest Florida, the rates were much higher. Charlotte, Collier, Lee and Sarasota counties all posted more than 100 percent gains in food stamp rates between April 2007 and December 2008.

The gains were more modest in South Florida and the Tampa Bay area over the same period. Pinellas was at a 43 percent increase, and Hillsborough weathered a 52 percent hike. But Pasco saw a bigger 65 percent hike, and Hernando got an eye-popping 94 percent hike.

The soaring use of food stamps indicates a growing demand in state services that has exacerbated the state's $2.3-billion budget hole, which is likely to rise to $2.4-billion because of the $100-million drop in tax revenue in November.

House Speaker Ray Sansom told members they had a "difficult task ahead of all of us, tough choices to make."

The first budget-cut drafts released Monday show legislators are prepared to cut nearly $1-billion in spending and raid unspent money in trust fund accounts for the rest. By contrast, Gov. Charlie Crist has proposed cutting $566-million in spending, using money from trust funds such as the Lawton Chiles tobacco fund and finalizing the gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe.

The difference: Crist's plan would protect more health care programs while the House and Senate have proposed big rate cuts to health care providers to save $276-million in health and human services programs.

Among the proposed legislative cuts: a $73.4-million cut to nursing homes, $50-million cut to hospitals, a $4.5-million cut to Medicaid health maintenance organizations and a $6-million cut to developmental-disability service providers.

Lobbying groups for providers predicted major troubles if the cuts become reality. Advocates said some nursing homes and homes for the developmentally disabled will have to shut down. And Medicaid HMOs, after shouldering back-to-back cuts, might pull out of counties such as Broward.

Democratic Sen. Nan Rich of Weston said virtually every type of social service could get gutted — from transition homes for foster children to drug-treatment programs. Rich said the Legislature is precariously close to making Florida a place with little quality of life.

"This isn't a sky-is-falling prediction," Rich said. "There are people who could be put out on the street or lose their jobs or lose their health care, and for what? We have to ask ourselves what kind of a state do we want people to live in?"

Drivers and speeders could get hit as well. To shield courts, prosecutors and public defenders from more cuts, lawmakers will hike traffic fines and fees to generate $63-million more a year. Some speeding tickets would jump by $25 each. Many traffic tickets would rise $10 each.

The state would revoke an 18 percent discount on fines for motorists who go to driving school, and judges no longer could waive fines in cases in which adjudication is withheld.

"This is a preamble to what is to come in the regular session," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

The regular legislative session that begins in March is likely to include another round of trims, perhaps as large as $4-billion, to balance the coming year's spending plan. Off the table: any cigarette or alcohol tax, finalizing the gambling compact with the Seminoles, and closing tax loopholes.

"It's a huge mistake," said Rep. Jim Waldman, a Coconut Creek Democrat. "They're not putting all the options on the table."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Florida's budget news gets worse 01/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 11:09pm]

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