TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist ordered all state agencies Thursday to reduce spending by 4 percent in the coming fiscal year, just a day after signing an already pared down state budget.
State economists say the action — the second holdback in less than 12 months — is necessary because high food and gas prices are prompting consumers to spend less. They now project lower sales tax collections in the coming fiscal year.
If Crist's order stands all year, agencies will have cut spending by roughly $1-billion out of the $25-billion operating budget.
"I believe it (this move) says that this administration believes in being prudent," Crist said Thursday night before a speech before the state Republican Party near Orlando.
The holdback means public schools, universities, community colleges, judges, prosecutors, public defenders and others — already bracing for the smallest state budget in three years — will have to get by with less.
Starting July 1, each agency's quarterly disbursement will shrink.
"It's awful. They just can't keep doing this," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "I laid 10 people off last week and didn't fill another 10 empty spots."
Crist's order comes just one day after signing the 2008-09 budget in which he sent no signal of his plan. In fact, he vetoed just $1-million in projects, far less than the $459-million he vetoed a year before.
As lawmakers repeatedly cut the budget in the current year, Crist often boasted his sharp veto pen had saved money that was being used to soften the blow.
He predicted the property tax cut that voters approved in January would help revive the state's real estate market and lead the economy.
But it hasn't. And the 4 percent holdback Crist ordered in June 2007 became permanent cuts. Even before Thursday's order, public schools were slated to see $130 less per student, state universities have frozen enrollment and the state is cutting its reimbursement rates for hospitals and nursing homes that care for the state's poorest sick.
Officials said Thursday that the newest holdback increases the chances of more government workers losing their jobs.
Dillinger said more cuts would certainly force more layoffs and increase caseloads for remaining employees. He said the state needs to take a serious look at repealing sales tax exemptions.
"Here we go again," said Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett. "We're cutting to the bone as it is now. You can only dig up so many Mason jars from the back yard."
Bartlett said a 4 percent cut would mean having to eliminate 15 jobs.
"It really is adding devastation upon devastation," said Dick Donahoe, executive director of the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.
University of South Florida provost Ralph Wilcox learned of the holdback hours after announcing a controversial academic reorganization that was done largely in response to $36-million in budget cuts approved by lawmakers over the past nine months.
USF president Judy Genshaft had already decided to trim an additional $14-million in expenses, for a total of $50-million, because she anticipated — correctly, it turns out — that state revenue shortfalls would continue.
"That 4 percent?" Wilcox said with resignation. "Well, there goes our $14-million. That just shows you this crisis is not over."
Times staff writers Colleen Jenkins and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.