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Legislators embrace cuts, avoid tax hikes

TALLAHASSEE — Teachers are digging into their own pockets for school supplies. Identity-theft investigations are slowing down. And thousands of nursing home workers are bracing for layoffs.

The stories about the effects of the state's widespread budget cuts have swamped lawmakers during the special legislative session called to fill the state's $2.4-billion budget hole. And as the Republican-led Legislature pushes forward with plans to trim nearly $1-billion in spending, fears and political posturing are on the rise.

Nearly half of the savings comes from schools. Democrats are loudly protesting the cuts along with advocates, lobbyists, union members, teachers and state workers.

On Tuesday, Democrats opposed a Republican House education bill that cut $365-million from schools. The bill, which passed out of committee on a 5-3 vote, also requires school employees to shoulder pay cuts if their district is declared to be in a financial emergency.

Even Republican Gov. Charlie Crist is getting worried about the size of the Legislature's proposed reductions. Crist said Tuesday that lawmakers should cut less and borrow more money from reserves.

"One of the concerns that I have is that we make these reductions without hurting the end user: the student. So we're watching closely," Crist told reporters.

Legislators said they have no choice but to cut $365-million in K-12 education money, and about $100-million more in non-classroom areas — such as from school transportation, instructional materials and virtual school enrollment.

The classroom hit locally: Hillsborough, $27-million; Pinellas, $15-million; Pasco, $9-million; and Hernando, $3-million.

Those numbers aren't a big surprise to the school districts. They were told to brace for these cuts after Crist ordered state agencies to withhold about 4 percent of their budgets last summer. Most school districts, including those in Tampa Bay, already have adjusted their budgets to accommodate the cuts.

Now the Legislature plans to ratify Crist's budget holdbacks — worth about $600-million — and increase them by about $400-million. Advocates say Floridians are starting to feel the effect of the budget cuts. Lawmakers are eliminating hundreds of vacant positions and might lay off at least a handful of workers.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is facing cuts of 85 positions, including 79 vacant jobs and six employees. But just the vacancies have been giving the agency headaches.

Telly Sands, a special agent in Tampa who works on economic crimes like identity theft, said her department is already feeling the crunch.

With the 4 percent holdback, the department stopped replacing retiring investigators. That means Sands has to either turn away cases or take a lot longer to investigate some cases. And in the case of identity theft, a delay costs big money, said Sands, who is also president of the FDLE Agents Association.

"For every day that goes by and that person isn't taken off the street you're looking at thousands and thousands of dollars in loss to retailers or to victims," Sands said.

"Being able to have the manpower to work these cases, that's the ball game right there. That's what we, at FDLE, have to make sure we have. And we're losing that. We need quality investigators to work these types of cases."

The Legislature's reductions are sprinkled throughout the budget, but they hit social services harder than Crist had called for.

Of all the health care cuts, one of the biggest targets nursing homes, which are paid with money from Medicaid. House and Senate leaders have agreed to cut nursing home Medicaid reimbursement rates 10 percent.

Nursing home operators like Debbie Franklin said the cuts have a human toll.

"This is 7,000 in potential job losses. It's going to bankrupt facilities," said Franklin, CEO for Florida Living Options, which operates in Lakeland, Ocala and Brandon.

"What effect will this have on the state's economy?" she asked. "Unemployment will go up."

In virtually every legislative budget committee, the questions and concerns sound the same. Advocates and Democrats are calling for more taxes, fees and more taxable gambling.

But Republican Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale responded by saying that tax increases will make matters worse.

"I'm not sure who we are going to be taxing," Bogdanoff said. "Perhaps maybe you'd like to tax the teachers who have lost their jobs? Or perhaps those families that are struggling with foreclosures?"

Most of the political war will be waged over the schools budget. School spending accounts for half of the part of the budget with the $2.4-billion hole. Schools bear about half of the cuts.

Next year, the total budget deficit could be at least $4-billion. That means more cuts for schools.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report, along with Herald writers Hannah Sampson and Kathleen McGrory. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.

Legislators embrace cuts, avoid tax hikes 01/06/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 9, 2009 10:31am]
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