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Spending cuts, gambling pact at heart of state budget plan

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers can fill a $2.3-billion budget hole by trimming government spending, nearly emptying savings accounts and approving a gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, according to a draft document approved by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Left off the list of options: tax and fee increases, which still could crop up during the Jan. 5-16 special lawmaking session to balance the budget.

Crist also hopes lawmakers will consider an economic development plan that he said would help small businesses and provide a glimmer of positive news as legislators cut the budget.

"It's nice to be able to provide hope," Crist said Thursday. "These are tough times."

Crist's tentative proposal is more road map than mandate for legislators.

Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, on Thursday ruled out approving the Seminole gambling pact, but said he might consider raising cigarette taxes or upping fees for government services and licenses.

Atwater and others said that although they spoke with Crist about his economic development plan, there is too little time and money to approve it.

Lawmakers and staffers say Crist's economic plans also could include a small-business loan program to help firms survive the frozen credit market; expanding tax credits for firms that increase jobs or keep jobs in the state; and establishing an information clearinghouse that would give small businesses access to otherwise-costly market data.

According to the draft budget document, the Legislature can balance the budget with a variety of cuts and budget transfers:

• $565-million by approving a 4 percent across-the-board agency budget cut that Crist ordered earlier this year.

• $318-million by culling unspent money in 37 special trust fund accounts established for anything from controlling invasive plants to helping disabled travelers.

• $119-million by using unspent construction money, or by bonding construction programs that were to be built with cash.

• $300-million by bonding prison construction. Florida's prison population hit 100,000 Thursday, underscoring the need for more beds. The state now houses some inmates in tents.

• $248-million by tapping the budget stabilization fund, leaving just $424-million in this savings account of last resort.

• $600-million by tapping the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund. Depending on how the money is accounted for, this withdrawal would leave about $530-million to $765-million in the annuity, which funds programs for poor kids and seniors.

Herald/Times staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@miamiherald.com.

Spending cuts, gambling pact at heart of state budget plan 12/18/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 12:32pm]
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