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Florida lawmakers to Gov. Rick Scott: Where are budget details?

Gov. Rick Scott's bold budget plan wasn't even 24 hours old Tuesday before state legislators started ripping it apart and leveling a familiar charge against the governor: He wasn't forthcoming with details.

Whether it was his billions in cuts to Medicaid or to schools, legislators said they weren't sure what Scott specifically wanted to do in his budget, which would further widen a $3.6 billion shortfall next year due to nearly $2.4 billion in proposed tax cuts.

The criticisms and tough questions weren't limited to Democrats; Scott's fellow Republicans were skeptical of what many thought were skimpy details in his $65.9 billion budget.

The bipartisan concerns underscored a growing sense in the Legislature that Scott's proposal is rooted in unrealistic political calculations, not the subtle calculus it takes to run the nation's fourth-most populous state. In the House K-12 budget committee on Tuesday morning, eyebrows arched and heads shook as lawmakers tried digesting Scott's plan to slash state-paid per-student spending by 10 percent.

"A 10 percent reduction is a significant cut," said committee Chairwoman Marti Coley, R-Marianna.

Coley and Rep. Janet Adkins scolded Scott's office for trying to "have it both ways" with the education budget. Scott said he's against the use of federal stimulus money, but his office tacitly encourages school districts to use the money to boost per-pupil spending.

"It's imperative that you go back and you redo the numbers," said Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach.

In the House health appropriations committee, Republicans and Democrats flummoxed another Scott aide who had difficulties explaining his plans to cut $3 billion from Medicaid over two years.

Rep. Jose Diaz, R-Miami, said he struggled with the idea of deeply cutting the Department of Children and Families and privatizing mental health facilities.

"My math tells me that the 2,500 jobs that you're getting rid of only leads to a 4 percent reduction in the budget," Diaz said. "It's only an $8 million savings in an almost $3 billion budget. That seems like a significant loss of jobs for a very small gain."

Scott had avoided many specifics on the campaign trail and though his budget gave more details than ever, legislators wanted more.

The tough questions in the House were a sign that the lower chamber of the Legislature might be less inclined to go along with Scott than the Senate, where Senate President Mike Haridopolos is running in what could be a crowded Republican Senate primary. There, fired-up tea party activists could play an outsized role.

Scott, elected with strong tea party support, hopes activists change the legislators' minds. Scott wants them to pressure lawmakers to pass his budget, which he first unveiled at a tea party rally he helped establish in the city of Eustis, northwest of Orlando. The governor urged the crowd of roughly 1,000 on Monday to pressure lawmakers on his budget.

Later, in a semi-private dinner at the Governor's Mansion with three top Senate Republicans, Scott urged the lawmakers to "just pass it (the budget)," according to a report posted on the Fine Print blog.

Still, Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon have expressed concerns about cutting so much state revenue in a time of budget shortfalls.

One of the senators at the dinner, Don Gaetz of Niceville, said Tuesday that Scott's budget is missing one piece — an element that links job creation with the governor's proposed budget cuts and tax increases. He said the governor is open-minded.

"I said this at the Governor's Mansion and the governor agreed in spades. We need to be sure the public policy choices we make are held to a rigorous return-on-investment standard," Gaetz said.

As the governor's policy advisers presented his budget to the House Government Operations Appropriations Committee Tuesday, Rep. John Julien, a North Miami Beach Democrat, said he didn't buy Scott's argument that cutting public-sector jobs would create private-sector jobs.

"It's one thing to say you're going recruit businesses to come into the state and you'll give them an incentive to stay here. But the argument that simply shrinking government is going to translate into job creation, that defies logic," said Julien, a former North Miami Beach city commissioner.

Rep. Bryan Nelson, an Apopka Republican, asked about Scott's plan to partly or completely dismantle 124 special-spending accounts, called trust funds. Many of the funds are filled with revenue from various industry professionals, who pay fees for state regulation. Under Scott's budget, the fees would pay for general government purposes.

"Isn't this turning a license fee into a tax?" Nelson asked.

A Scott adviser said the governor didn't believe that Scott is raising taxes by redirecting the fee money. Still, Scott didn't touch a gun-regulation trust fund, which the NRA aggressively guards because it believes shifting fees to the rest of the budget would be a "gun tax."

Legislators said they're still combing the budget. And what they want, said Stuart Rep. Gayle Harrell, are details. She repeatedly noted the absence of specifics during the health budget meeting Tuesday, and she doubted the $3 billion in Medicaid savings Scott partly hoped to realize by expanding the role of HMOs.

"How are you going to deal with the reality of the situation and build a budget that's going to address the most likely scenario?" Harrell said. "I don't want to have to come back and balance the budget with the kind of deficit that this kind of plan might precipitate."

Times staff writers Michael C. Bender and Janet Zink contributed to this report.

Florida lawmakers to Gov. Rick Scott: Where are budget details? 02/08/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 8, 2011 11:58pm]
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