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Florida's fiscal hole will exceed patches

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's frayed budget is being patched with borrowed money, and the prolonged economic slump will force Gov. Charlie Crist and legislators to confront much bigger shortfalls in the months ahead.

At Crist's urging, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers used a new state law to borrow $672-million from an emergency fund so the state can pay its bills. That money must be repaid, and the transfusion filled less than half of a $1.5-billion fiscal pothole in the current year.

State leaders in November will wipe out the rest of this year's deficit through spending cuts, raiding the state's dwindling cash reserves or borrowing more money from a health care fund, the Lawton Chiles Endowment. Cutting spending is the hardest choice, but it also eases the pain going forward because it reduces the state's recurring or year-to-year expenses.

That's not the half of it. As tax receipts continue to fall short of estimates and costs of products from gasoline to health care continue to climb, the state faces a projected $3.5-billion hole in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, raising the specter of even deeper spending cuts in the future.

The state's chief economist, Amy Baker, sounded a series of alarm bells in a briefing to the 14-member Legislative Budget Commission. For the next two years, she cautioned, there will only be enough money to meet critical needs such as prisons, Medicaid, and keeping schools and courts open, while the state's debt load is approaching its self-imposed legal limit of 7 percent of annual tax revenue.

"The next two years are going to be a challenge," Baker said.

The economist added a new term to Florida's fiscal lexicon: a "structural imbalance," the gap between the growth in the state's revenues and its larger ongoing expenses. She told legislators they also must set aside $200-million as an "absolute minimum" reserve for emergencies such as hurricanes.

"The budget's going to grow, independent of any revenue constraints," Baker told lawmakers. "If you want to fund the critical needs and some part of or all of the high priority funds, then you do not have enough funds to do that."

Crist has imposed 4 percent holdbacks on all state agencies, the equivalent of a $900-million annual cut. But some lawmakers are frustrated that such action was taken without their input, and without knowing exactly how each agency is cutting costs.

The current budget is $5-billion less than last year's, and last March, lawmakers cut $512-million from the previous year's budget.

Frustrated homeowners are writing to Crist, asking when they can expect to receive the property tax cuts promised by a voter-approved tax relief amendment last January. Legislators are at odds over how to best attack the series of shortfalls.

Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, said the bleak budget picture proves Florida has a "dysfunctional" tax system that can't meet the state's needs.

But Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, the likely next House speaker, agreed with Crist's approach of making temporary fixes in hopes the economy will rebound.

"We can only spend the money we have," Sansom said. "You're seeing a very, very responsible Legislature."

Crist remains upbeat about Florida's economy, citing a 5 percent uptick in July in home sales in the Tampa Bay area (however, the median price of a single-family home fell 18 percent from July 2007 to July 2008).

"I am optimistic," Crist said.

"Optimism is not an economic policy," countered Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House Democratic leader. "Although it's great to hope for the best, I think we have to plan for the current reality, which is a hole that seems to be getting deeper."

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

Florida's fiscal hole will exceed patches 09/14/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 10:31am]
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