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Florida budget gets final education, health care cuts

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers will earn 5 percent less next year, public schools will have less money and the state's health safety net will be slashed under a final budget deal announced Sunday by legislative leaders.

Under the plan, only state troopers among state employees will see a pay hike, 5 percent, in 2008-09.

The Legislature's top two negotiators, budget committee chairs Sen. Lisa Carlton and Rep. Ray Sansom, announced the agreement with scant explanation, closing eight weeks of negotiations on the $65-billion plan.

The full Legislature is expected to adopt the budget, which includes health care cuts approaching $1-billion, before adjourning Friday.

"These aren't easy decisions," Sansom said. "We're dealing with the economic times that we're dealing with."

Among the surprises Sunday: Carlton and Sansom agreed to use $55-million more from a health care reserve funded with tobacco settlement proceeds.

The extra money from the Lawton Chiles Endowment will pay for construction of domestic violence shelters and senior centers and for three county public health clinics, including $14-million for one in Hernando County.

Last week, legislators decided to spend $300-million from the same fund to continue two vital Medicaid programs.

In writing the spending plan, lawmakers faced more than $3-billion less in tax revenue next year. The Republican-led Legislature was unwilling to consider most options for generating additional dollars. The result is a budget that's as revealing for what's not in it as for what is.

For example, for the second year in a row, there's no across-the-board pay raise for state workers and no new money for Everglades restoration.

There's also a reduction in the money to classrooms — even though lawmakers promised to protect education from reductions caused by the passage of Amendment 1, a property tax cut, in January.

But tax collections have continued to slide downward, and Florida Lottery sales have fallen nearly $100-million below projections, further reducing the money available for education.

Public schools will see per-student funding drop by about 1.8 percent. Staff members could not give an exact dollar figure, but school lobbyists say it will amount to between $135 and $140 less per student.

"We still have almost $1-billion less than we started with this school year," said teacher union lobbyist Marshall Ogletree of the Florida Education Association. "So it's hard to feel good about it."

The budget includes a 6 percent tuition hike for in-state public university and community college undergraduates.

Eliminated was $14.4-million for adoption subsidies to families that adopt foster children, a top priority of Gov. Charlie Crist.

A Democratic lawmaker monitoring Sunday's negotiations said that decision is especially troubling because fewer foster children may find stable homes.

"It's kind of a joke around here," said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston. "We talk about abortion and all these social issues. But we have to be looking at taking care of children after they're born."

The state will continue a $2-million-a-year program begun by former Gov. Jeb Bush to help pregnancy centers counsel women who are considering having abortions.

The 5 percent self-imposed pay cut for lawmakers is a symbolic gesture, intended as a sign that legislators, who make about $31,000 annually, are willing to share the pain of the worst budget year in decades.

The pay hike for troopers is effective Oct. 1 and will increase starting pay for a first-year trooper by about $1,250 from the current $33,977.

The trooper union's president said that while the money is appreciated, it's not enough to reverse a high turnover rate, as young officers leave for better-paying jobs as city officers or sheriff's deputies.

Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz, said he was disappointed to see the Senate and House cut $250,000 each for gang prevention programs offered through football legend Jim Brown's Amer-I-Can Life Management Skills and through the Florida Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs.

"Even if you have a good program that has proven to be effective, it doesn't mean it's immune to the budget ax," Ambler said.

>>fast facts

2008-09 budget highlights

Lawmakers are expected to approve the plan this week.

Public university and community college tuition: 6 percent hike.

Medical schools: Nearly $11-million for fledging schools at University of Central Florida and Florida International University; $1.7-million more for University of South Florida and $4.5-million for University of Florida.

Energy research and education: $58.5-million for universities .

Nursing homes: A 6.5 percent cut in Medicaid reimbursement, saving $163-million.

Paychecks: 5 percent hike for state troopers; no increase for other state employees; 5 percent cut for legislators.

Everglades restoration: No new funding.

Johnnie Byrd Alzheimer's Research Center: No state funding.

Prison construction: $309-million to build new prisons.

Florida budget gets final education, health care cuts 04/27/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 2, 2008 10:11pm]
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