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Legislature's budget-slashing fervor heats up

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers seeking to blunt the impact of budget cuts took aim Wednesday at a $641-million deal to bring commuter rail to Orlando and $20-million in annual tax rebates to Florida's professional sports franchises, including three in Tampa Bay.

A group of rebellious Senate Republicans tried without success to shift $90-million from the CSX rail line project to health care, courts and schools, but angry GOP leaders blocked the move as the Senate adopted a $65-billion state budget.

In a surprise move, the House voted to suspend, for a year, sales tax rebates to pro sports teams to pay for stadium upgrades, including the Rays, Lightning and Buccaneers. The House amendment was offered by Rep. Ron Saunders, a Key West Democrat, and adopted on an unrecorded voice vote, a sign that lawmakers did not want to go on record as supporting tax breaks for sports teams in the worst budget year in decades.

No such provision exists in any Senate bill, and pro sports team lobbyists are expected to mobilize quickly to keep the tax rebates alive.

The Senate's 26-12 vote to pass a budget sets the stage for tough negotiations with the House, which is expected to pass its own spending plan for 2008-09 today. It also capped an emotional debate in which a handful of Republicans failed on a 22-16 vote to shift money from the CSX project to other programs.

The CSX deal, signed by state transportation officials in 2006, gives the private railroad $150-million for its rail line through urban Orlando and commits the state to nearly $500-million more in improvements to the rail's other freight lines through Central Florida.

"I'm terribly disappointed leadership rallied around a for-profit company," said Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who proposed moving $20-million from a transportation trust fund to improve the courts' budget.

A vocal critic of the CSX deal, Dockery also voted for an unsuccessful proposal to shift $70-million from the rail project to public defenders, state attorneys, child abuse investigators, elderly care and teachers. She voted for the budget but said she did so with reservations.

"I think it shows that we didn't put a priority on health care and education," she said.

Senate budget Chairwoman Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, criticized her colleagues for trying to divert road money because it would create an operating deficit in those programs next year.

"If you want to hand the next group of legislators a debt, then by all means, vote for this (anti-CSX) amendment," Carlton said.

Road building is a key discrepancy between the two chambers as they struggle to cope with a $2.5-billion shortfall in state revenue without raising taxes.

Senate Republicans have made road-building a priority, saying it will boost the state's flagging economy by creating jobs. They leave untouched more than $7-billion in gas tax-supported transportation trust funds, a stance the House does not share.

The House budget diverts $432-million from the road-building fund to blunt the cuts to education and health.

Another difference between the two chambers: The Senate's most powerful members don't want to use one-time money from trust funds to pay for programs with recurring costs.

"What are we going to do next year when we don't have those non-recurring dollars?" said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who leads the Senate's transportation budget group.

Both chambers call for a decrease in per-student funding for public schools for the first time in decades. The Senate would cut about $115 per student; the House, $85.

The two chambers also agree on a 6 percent in-state tuition hike for state universities and community colleges.

Also in the Senate budget: elimination of almost 1,800 corrections officers and nearly 700 probation officers.

The Senate also proposes a half-billion in cuts to health services. One result is that more than 24,000 elderly and disabled would lose their medical care, said Sen. Steve Geller, D-Cooper City.

In the House, debate on its $65-billion plan went into the evening Wednesday.

Debate centered on $1-billion in health care cuts in areas such as home care to keep seniors out of nursing homes, hospital stays for Medicaid transplant patients, primary health care in county clinics and sickle cell education and screening.

House budget Chairman Ray Sansom, R-Destin, said the plan was fiscally responsible and unavoidable because of the recession. "You can't spend money you don't have," Sansom told the House.

For an hour, House members debated the wisdom of saving $6-million by closing the only state-run hospital for tuberculosis in the United States, the A.G. Holley State Hospital in Lantana, near West Palm Beach. The Department of Health said that up to 173 jobs could be affected and that TB patients would be shifted to other hospitals.

Democrats argued in vain that Republicans have refused to consider revenue options such as the elimination of sales tax exemptions. They cited $100-million in annual breaks given to pro sports teams, charter fishing boats and newspaper advertising inserts.

"Why is it more important to take care of that industry than help out people who are dying?" asked Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House minority leader.

Times staff writers David DeCamp and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report.

>>fast facts

Key House-Senate splits

Some major differences between House and Senate budgets:

Per-student funding, K-12 schools: $85 decrease in House, $115 decrease in Senate.

Florida Forever land acquisition: $0 House, $300-million Senate

Everglades restoration: $0 House, $100-million Senate

Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center: $3.5-million House, $5-million Senate

Nursing home staffing ratios: 2.6 hours/patient House, 2.9 hours/patient Senate

Grants for Florida students at private in-state colleges: $2,925 annually House; $2,665 Senate

Pay cuts for legislators: 2.5 percent House; 10 percent, Senate, which would also cut governor's salary 10 percent

Note: The Senate's plan was approved Wednesday. The House plan is up for a vote today and may be amended.

Source: Florida House, Florida Senate

Legislature's budget-slashing fervor heats up 04/09/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 11, 2008 4:09pm]
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