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Florida legislators debate where to make next budget cuts

TALLAHASSEE — Layoffs of state workers. Shuttered driver's license offices. Fewer seats in prekindergarten classes. Parole for more nonviolent criminals. Less help for injured manatees.

Hundreds of cost-cutting measures will be considered by state legislators in coming weeks as they carry out the largest one-time budget cut in years, and the third cut in six months, in response to a downward spiral in revenues that pay for much of the state government's overhead.

"The economy is slowing down, so government spending should slow down," said Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, who chairs the House Policy & Budget Council.

Having slashed this year's $70-billion budget by $1.6-billion, lawmakers must sharpen the knife again to reduce spending next year by up to twice as much. With lawmakers unlikely to consider higher taxes or fees, agencies are under orders to trim their budgets by 10 percent.

Nearly two-thirds of state spending falls into education and human services, so it's impossible for lawmakers to save money without major cutbacks in those two areas, even though those programs also have the most forceful advocates. The cost-cutting decisions won't be final for several weeks, but here are some examples of proposals lawmakers will consider:

• Cut base funding for public schools by up to $1.5-billion, triggering the first decline in per-pupil spending in years.

• Cut the Office of Early Learning budget by $16-million, resulting in 7,079 fewer children having access to prekindergarten education. The money pays for child care for low-income working parents, and the cut would also mean a loss of $14.5-million in matching federal money.

• Reduce state aid to the Johnnie Byrd Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute in Tampa by $8.5-million, to $5-million.

• End a $1.1-million program that pays Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo and two other parks to rescue and rehabilitate injured manatees.

• Close the Clearwater driver's license office at a savings of $240,000, as well as 11 other offices statewide.

Advocates for pregnant women and children are alarmed because lawmakers are considering lowering income eligibility for services, requiring new Medicaid recipients to be in HMOs and eliminating optional health care services for adults in Medicaid.

"It's tragic that we keep going back to the same needy groups to fill budget holes," said Anne Swerlick of Florida Legal Services.

Chief Justice Fred Lewis of the Florida Supreme Court told senators that a 10 percent across-the-board cut to the court system of $42-million would have a "staggering" impact on justice, forcing layoffs of more than 900 people and requiring foster children to wait longer to be placed with families.

"We must get through these troubled waters without sacrificing a branch of government," Lewis said.

When one bureaucrat proposed shutting down the official state Web site, myflorida.com, and eliminating three full-time jobs to save $405,000, one lawmaker drew the line.

"We can't take the My Florida portal down," said Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Other proposals call for raising revenue by charging fees to visitors who use credit cards at state parks, charging counties more to protect forestry land from fires and increasing court filing fees.

The House and Gov. Charlie Crist are on record as opposing new fees.

The atmosphere in the Capitol is such that talk of new programs is taboo and any bill with a price attached is as good as dead.

"We are in the middle of a fiscal crisis that is sucking the air out of this place," House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, told environmentalists who were rallying for a new source of money for state land acquisition.

For many fiscal conservatives in the House, the current budget squeeze is not a crisis, but an opportunity to put the brakes on spending. Sansom's determination to get the shortfall under control is explained in part by his future: He's in line to become House speaker in November and does not want to spend his two years at the pinnacle of power wiping red ink off the state's balance sheet.

At the same time, the spirit of bipartisan goodwill that dominated last year's sessions is evaporating as partisan differences over taxing and spending become more pronounced and election-minded politicians in both parties seek an advantage in the debate over how much budget-cutting is too much.

Sansom blasted House Democrats for voting largely as a bloc against the last round of cuts, which totaled about a half-billion dollars.

"That was very irresponsible," Sansom said. "They voted for a budget deficit. We will definitely pick up seats with votes like that. They made a very big mistake that was a disappointing, irresponsible vote."

In response, Gelber said Republicans will pay a price at the polls in November for stubbornly refusing to tap surplus accounts known as trust funds and a reserve fund available for emergencies.

"(Republicans) know the next round of budget cuts will awaken the electorate," said Gelber, who's running for a Senate seat this fall. "Republicans are blind to the challenges our state faces that will only dig us deeper in this hole."

Times staff writer Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

. Fast facts

On the chopping block

Among the budget cuts suggested to state lawmakers:

• Delay the last stage of a class-size amendment: $600-million

• Parole 8,250 nonviolent offenders: $354-million

• Freeze Medicaid rates for hospitals, nursing homes: $316-million

• Reduce court funding and eliminate 971 positions: $42-million

• Cut drug and alcohol abuse treatment in prisons: $36-million

• Reduce early childhood school readiness: $16-million

Source: Florida Legislature

Florida legislators debate where to make next budget cuts 03/23/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2008 9:42am]
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