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Senate budget full of deep cuts, 'tough choices'

TALLAHASSEE — Big cuts for hospitals. State worker layoffs. Privatizing prisons in 18 counties.

The Florida Senate's proposed $69.8 billion budget, which passed the appropriations committee Thursday on a largely party-line vote, is full of "tough choices" in the words of Republican leaders.

But they did the choosing. And Democratic-leaning groups — state workers and the unions representing them — were on the losing end.

The Senate budget eliminates 5,000 state-paid jobs, many of them filled positions. It requires state workers to pay more for health insurance. It trims their pay 3 percent to help fund their retirement plans. It removes financial retirement incentives and raises the retirement age for police and firefighters.

"I don't want to have 60-year-old guys going into a burning building to save lives," said Dean Parkerson, a Hialeah Fire Department chief who testified against the changes to the retirement plans.

Parkerson's pleas were echoed by police officers, teachers and their unions. They weren't ignored. But his call to find money elsewhere in the budget wasn't heeded either.

The state faces a $3.75 billion budget gap. Republicans, who won a super-majority in the Legislature in the last election, say they'll stick to their campaign pledge to not raise taxes.

So they'll cut and cut and cut the state payroll, the size of government, schools, environmental programs, health departments and Medicaid reimbursement rates for nursing homes and hospitals.

"Fact is, we've got a real arithmetic problem here," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. "We can't spend more than we take in. And there is no part — no part — of this budget where we haven't asked people to make sacrifices. Hospitals, or nursing homes or schools or anybody else — nobody has been immune."

Even Gov. Rick Scott could see the effect of the cuts. His security detail is being shaved in half.

Scott had proposed a budget with even bigger cuts to government and $2.4 billion in tax cuts. But the Legislature isn't going along with the large revenue reductions because it means more budget cuts.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos said his chamber might consider some limited tax relief late in the session.

"First and foremost, we want to make these tough decisions," he said. "Sometimes people look at this very conservative Legislature that we enjoy cutting — these are tough calls."

The no-new-taxes pledge doesn't mean the Legislature isn't making life in Florida more expensive for some. Lawmakers are in the process of raising tuition for college students and passing legislation that could allow electric rates and premiums for Citizens Property Insurance to go higher.

Despite the lean times, senators on Thursday proposed slipping in $4 million in hometown spending projects — known to some in Washington as "earmarks" and as "turkeys" to Tallahassee folks. The projects range from the Dan Marino Foundation for the disabled in Broward County to senior services in Little Havana to a Central Florida-centric Farm Share program.

"Not everyone is being treated equally," said Nan Rich, the Senate's Democratic leader from Weston.

Some group homes that help people with cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities could see deep rate cuts — especially in the Florida Keys, where reimbursement rates could be slashed by 17 percent. Mental-health and substance abuse programs for adults are being gutted.

The programs serving frail elders and transplant victims face big reductions of $1.1 billion. Slashing those programs will just make people sick and bring them to the emergency room, say hospitals officials, whose facilities are facing $1.8 billion in cuts. They say those reductions could lead to the loss of 41,000 jobs in a state with 1.1 million unemployed.

Added all together, the reductions could have the effect of a 35 percent rate cut, said Tony Carvalho, lobbyist for the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida. He said the six largest providers of charity care would see a $463 million reduction — $66 million from Tampa General.

Correctional and probation officers in the 18-county region from Miami-Dade to Manatee counties face the loss of jobs or a major change of employers if the Senate plan to privatize prisons is taken up by the House, which calls for privatizing the services in just Miami-Dade and Broward.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, tried but failed Thursday to stop the privatization plan, calling it a "threat to public safety." But supporters said the measure was safe and would reduce prison spending in the region by 7 percent.

The fact that both chambers want some privatization is a good indication that at least a few public prisons will be bid out to a for-profit corporation.

Another similarity between the two budgets: Both cut state worker benefits by about the same amount — meaning the reductions are almost a guarantee when the two chambers meet in conference committees to hash out their differences and pass an identical budget.

Still, the state worker pay cuts are controversial. Two Republicans, Fasano and Thad Altman, voted no. Altman said it was "a mistake" to cut the Florida Retirement System.

Some big differences remain between the House and Senate.

The House budget, approved Wednesday by its appropriations committee, is $3.3 billion smaller. That's because the Senate, for the first time, wants to expand its budget by about $1.1 billion to capture the financial information of the expressway authorities in the Tampa Bay, Orlando and Northwest Florida areas. The Senate also wants to rope in the five water management districts into the state's budget, boosting the bottom line by $1 billion more.

"These are unelected folks with taxing power," said Sen. J.D. Alexander, head of the Senate's budget committee. Alexander betrayed a measure of disappointment at Democrats for voting against the budget. Two Democrats from Orlando and Tallahassee voted for it.

"I wish I had the luxury to not vote for the bill," he said. "This Legislature, this Senate, is faced with something in my 14 sessions I've not seen. I've not seen the kind of real reductions in base spending that we face today. There's nothing like it in my experience."

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

Senate budget full of deep cuts, 'tough choices' 03/31/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2011 6:50pm]
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