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Florida House, Senate have conflicting budget strategies

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House and Senate are advancing starkly different strategies to patch a $2.5-billion shortfall in tax revenue for next year.

The House wants to minimize cuts to schools and health programs by shifting $700-million from transportation, an unpopular idea in the Senate.

Senators propose relying on more revenue from gambling, including the state lottery, and increasing an array of fees, a strategy unwelcome in the antitax, antigambling House.

The fiscal maneuvering of the two Republican-led chambers will dominate the next five weeks in the Capitol as Florida faces its biggest budget crunch in two decades.

House leaders defended their proposed raid on road building as necessary to protect public health.

"I don't think we have a choice," said House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami. "Not that roads aren't important. They are. But you can't do that instead of life-sustaining medications for the medically needy or the constitutional requirement to adequately fund education."

The idea was quickly shot down in the Senate, where members want to increase transportation spending.

"We're not doing that in the Senate," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a tenacious defender of billions of dollars in gas tax revenue earmarked exclusively for transportation.

At biggest risk are education and social services, the two largest parts of the budget funded by sales tax collections and an assortment of smaller taxes that have plummeted with the economy.

Health care and human services programs, especially Medicaid, face major cuts. The Senate anticipates cutting $800-million, and those who've seen a preliminary list of cuts say the pain will be deep.

"We will have a nonexistent safety net in this state," said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, referring to Senate draft proposals to curb optional government-funded programs for speech, hearing and dental care for children.

Both the House and Senate say they want to protect education as much as possible, even in a time of declining public school enrollment in many parts of the state. But senators are crafting bills to cut education spending by a total of $1.1-billion, of which about $880-million would be in grades K-12.

"It isn't a pretty sight," said Sen. Steve Wise, a Jacksonville Republican overseeing K-12 spending.

Both chambers also propose raising tuition by 6 percent at universities and community colleges, an idea likely to draw opposition from Gov. Charlie Crist.

"It's not something I'm excited about," Crist said Tuesday.

Across Florida, public outrage over cuts is rapidly on the rise.

A group of tight-knit and vocal advocates for cultural programs and libraries began e-mailing lawmakers to protest what it said were House proposals to eliminate the Division of Cultural Affairs and slash nearly a third of the state's $32-million library appropriation. Complaints reached a point that Secretary of State Kurt Browning told advocates they were doing more harm than good.

"I appreciate your passion," Browning said in an e-mail. "However, the phone calls and e-mails make it difficult to have open and frank discussions resulting in a positive outcome."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida House, Senate have conflicting budget strategies 03/25/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2008 8:56pm]
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