TALLAHASSEE — Three months after Gov. Charlie Crist suggested using reserves to stave off health care cuts, lawmakers agreed Wednesday to spend $300-million to preserve two programs serving more than 40,000 sick and disabled people.
Funded for another year are the Medically Needy program for poor people with catastrophic illnesses or injury and Meds AD, which serves disabled people older than 65 who make just a little too much to qualify for Medicaid.
The decision was a major development in the annual House-Senate negotiations to settle the 2008-09 budget.
The money comes from the Lawton Chiles endowment, a fund named for the late governor who pursued the state's tobacco settlement against cigarette makers. Until now, only interest from the fund has been used to pay for state services.
Crist has advocated spending $400-million from the fund, but lawmakers were largely resistant, until Wednesday.
"With these dollars, we're hoping to help the poorest of the poor," said Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey.
The move lifted the spirits of hospital and patient advocates, who have spent the past eight weeks in a mostly futile effort to stave off up to $1-billion in cuts to hospitals, nursing homes, county health clinics and programs that benefit the sick and disabled.
"This is critically important," said Tony Carvalho, a health care lobbyist and president of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida.
Mary Ellen Ross, director of a transplant patients' advocacy group, said she has grown weary of battling year in and year out to continue the programs.
"I really would like to see this roller coaster come to an end," Ross said.
Another controversial budget cut was avoided Wednesday when House members agreed with senators, led by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, to preserve a Medicaid hospice care benefit for terminally ill patients at a cost of about $52-million.
School budget cuts
In the other biggest area of the budget, public schools, lobbying by educators hasn't been as successful. They want lawmakers to move as much as $1-billion from rainy-day reserve accounts into education, to reduce budget cuts as they are doing with health programs.
But so far, legislators aren't biting. The result is a proposed K-12 budget that cuts per-student funding by an average of $146. And for the first time in decades, the budget plan would fund schools more with local property taxes than state dollars.
About $9-billion would come from the state while $9.4-billion would come from local property taxes, including an additional $360-million from local property taxes statewide, a 4 percent increase.
"This is the irony of the great tax cutters of the Republican caucus," said House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "They have finally succeeded in shifting to homeowners the lion's share of school funding."
Republican lawmakers defended the move, noting they had rolled back the school property tax rate in what they said was an attempt to keep property tax collections down.
"It would have been greater had we not gone to the rollback rate," said Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, the House's point man on education. "It's evidence of the fact that we have billions of dollars less in our state budget."
But school officials say the next budget accelerates a long-running trend of the state increasingly relying on local tax dollars to pay for schools.
The real estate boom of the past few years has allowed the Republican-led Legislature to keep the school tax rate about the same but collect far more money because of increased property values.
"Back 10 years ago, it was 60 (percent state), 40 (percent local)," said Marshall Ogletree of the Florida Education Association, a teachers union. "This is reflective of a bad budget year, yes. But it's also reflective of a bad trend, in which government hasn't given its fair share, and they've left it on the doors of taxpayers."
Lawmakers also agreed to restore money to the Road Rangers, the state's free program to help disabled drivers, support police at crashes and clear debris. But the program will receive $11-million next year, compared to $21-million this year.
Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.