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Schools bear brunt of fiscal pain

TALLAHASSEE — Schools are carrying the bulk of the nearly $1-billion in spending cuts Florida lawmakers will make this week to balance the budget, including a $14-million cut to Pinellas schools and a $26-million cut to Hillsborough schools, according to details released Tuesday.

Meeting on the second day of a two-week special session to cut the state budget by $2.3-billion, lawmakers said they are trying to shield classrooms from the deepest cuts. The proposed trims amount to $465-million, including a 2 percent reduction in the state's base budget of $3,886 per pupil, or $85.42.

It will be up to Florida's 67 school districts to determine which programs to scale back to implement the cuts between now and June 30.

School spending that legislators consider nonclassroom related will face deeper cuts of about 4 to 6 percent. Among them: school transportation, instructional materials and virtual school enrollment. Legislators also plan to consolidate prekindergarten classrooms to accommodate more children and offer fewer summer sessions for preschoolers.

Lawmakers plan to balance the budget by tapping money sitting in unspent special project accounts, known as trust funds. But those plans don't go as far as Gov. Charlie Crist would like. The governor voiced disappointment Tuesday that the Legislature's proposals would cut about $400-million more in state spending than his proposal did.

"One of the concerns that I have is that we make these reductions without hurting the end user, the student ... and the most vulnerable in our state," Crist said Tuesday after meeting with economic development leaders at the governor's mansion. "So we're watching closely. We'll continue to have discussions about that, and I remain hopeful."

Crist also said he wishes legislators would heed his advice and borrow about $1.2-billion from three sources: a budget stabilization fund, the Lawton Chiles health care endowment and bonding for new prison beds.

"What are we supposed to do, sit around and admire that money? It's there for a reason," he said. "The reason is to utilize it when you're in tough times. Here we are."

Democrats also complained that Republicans are rushing to make the deep cuts instead of considering alternatives, such as raising the cigarette tax, closing a tax loophole on real estate transactions by out-of-state shell corporations, and ratifying the gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe.

Budget analysts say a $1 per pack increase in the state's 34-cents-a- pack cigarette tax would raise $1-billion and that ratifying the gambling agreement with the tribe would bring the state $135-million each year.

"These Republican budget cuts will impact every Floridian, working families, and our youngest and most vulnerable citizens," said House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands of Weston. "The effect of these cuts will be felt for years to come."

The governor, however, is not prepared to pursue higher taxes — yet. When asked if he would support any tax increase to make ends meet, Crist answered Tuesday: "Not now."

That approach is not sitting well for many Democrats.

"Despite their rhetoric about having an open dialogue, the majority party members aren't allowing budget options on the table," said Rep. Geraldine Thompson of Orlando. "Why are they so afraid to allow the Legislature to debate better budget fixes?"

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.

Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

Schools bear brunt of fiscal pain 01/06/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 5:44pm]
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