Political parsimony: Florida lawmakers scrounge for every nickel, dime and dollar

TALLAHASSEE

Staring down a $3 billion deficit for the coming budget year, lawmakers are doing what amounts to turning up the couch cushions in search of spare change.

The largely partisan debate about levying new taxes and higher fees to raise revenue rages on. And legislators still consider some programs untouchable — notably, their free medical insurance premiums, the elimination of which could save about $44 million a year.

Meanwhile, agency heads and legislators are proposing laws and budget cuts that crack down on everything from state lease contracts to the popular Bright Futures Scholarship Program. Agency mergers that might have seemed politically unfeasible a few years ago are on the table, all in the name of saving precious taxpayer dollars.

"We're nickel and diming," said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "We're turning government upside-down and shaking the change out.

"If there are examples of abuse and irresponsible behavior, we're going to fix it, whether it's an agency or a student whose education is being paid for by the state," said Weatherford, who is in line to become House speaker.

The list of ideas is long and eclectic.

Vacate one floor of the building that houses the Department of State to save $153,421 a year.

The floor has no offices or employees, just stacked shelving lining the walls. It's where the ballots from the disputed 2000 presidential election are kept.

"We have gotten to the point where we cannot pay rent," Secretary of State Kurt Browning recently testified before a Senate budget committee. "We cannot pay rent and keep our doors open. We can't afford to own the floor."

Eliminate those little colored stickers on license plates that prove drivers have their vehicle registrations up to date to save $1.6 million a year, according to Electra Bustle, director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The agency already is planning to eliminate the brown stem in state license plates to save $50,000 a year.

The Senate Transportation Committee proposes taking pagers from most troopers who use them, to save $11,000.

Meanwhile, Gov. Charlie Crist and his staff have recommended merging the Department of Health and the Agency for Health Care Administration to save about $2 million a year.

The proposals might seem like penny pinching relative to the $3 billion budget deficit, but at this point elected officials need every penny they can get.

"If you get enough little pieces together of a mosaic, eventually you have a picture," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "And for my kids, a couple million dollars might save an IB program in their school district."

Other proposed bills have the potential to save significantly more by tightening the reins on expensive programs and departments.

Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, is pushing a bill (SB 1248) to require that students who lose or damage textbooks repay the full cost. Current law requires they pay only between 50 and 75 percent. Wise predicts a savings of $12 million.

Another proposal (HB 719/SB1364) would require universities to repay the state for classes that Bright Futures students drop later in the semester. Scholarship students also would have to take 24 credits over two semesters to keep Bright Futures. The potential savings to the state is close to $30 million, according to a Senate staff analysis.

Other proposals affecting college students, such as charging them higher tuition when they take more credit hours than they need for a degree, are not new.

But education leaders and lawmakers say Florida's budget crunch gives the proposals a better chance than ever of passing.

"Absolutely, absolutely," said Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, who is sponsoring the bill (SB2318) to charge students for taking too many college credits.

"When you're flush, you have the ability to overlook things," he said. "Now we have to look at it from the standpoint of, we're short on resources and these kids are taking up space that could go to another student."

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at scolavecchio@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Penny-pinching proposals

Eliminate the brown stems on the orange blossom that graces Florida license tags: Save $50,000 a year.

Extend the life of a license plate from six years to 10: Save $3.7 million.

Vacate one floor of the building that houses the Department of State: Save $153,421 a year.

Merge the Department of Health and the Agency for Health Care Administration: Save about $2 million a year.

Eliminate the colored vehicle registration stickers on license plates: Save $1.6 million a year.

Take away pagers from troopers: $11,000.

Recoup tuition costs from Bright Futures students who drop classes: $30 million.

Source: Legislature, state of Florida

Political parsimony: Florida lawmakers scrounge for every nickel, dime and dollar 03/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2009 1:02pm]

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