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Millions in state budget cuts criticized as short-sighted

Carol Bennett checked into the Operation PAR Village drug treatment center in Largo on Jan. 5, six months pregnant and addicted to cocaine. Today, she is grateful she got in when she did.

"I didn't want to have my baby in jail," said Bennett, 32, who traded jail time on cocaine possession charges for 16 months of addiction treatment. She said she has been using cocaine for four years, has seven other children ages 2 to 16 and is determined to make a new start.

"I really want to change my life."

Because Bennett was pregnant, her treatment is paid for by federal money from last year's budget, but with another round of budget cuts facing the treatment center, there is no guarantee the 45 women on the waiting list will make it in.

The Florida Legislature approved $1.2-billion worth of spending cuts Wednesday to balance the state's $2.4-billion budget deficit. Included in the latest cuts are $3-million from drug treatment programs like the PAR Village, which will have to eliminate 35 of its 160 treatment beds.

"It's the epitome of insanity," said Nancy Hamilton, executive director of the program. "We are building new prisons and reducing the very thing that keeps people out of prison."

What's worse, she said, "there's going to be more cuts."

Legislators predict they'll have to close another $3-billion shortfall when they write the 2008-09 budget this spring.

"This is a prelude," Senate President Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach warned, moments after the Legislature adjourned Wednesday.

He predicted more spending cuts, unless lawmakers agree to tax increases, a prospect that once was implausible, he said.

The prospect of additional budget cuts is sending shock waves of worry through Florida. Parents at Ronald Reagan High School in Doral have pitched a tent to protest school cuts, with two mothers on a hunger strike. The complaint from many parents and state workers is the same: short-term cuts will have long-term and potentially irreversible costs.

Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association, says that for every drug addict sent to residential treatment, the state saves $10 a day and produces someone who "has been taught to live in a community," while prisons produce punishment.

"For every bed we lose in the community treatment system, it represents a person who is going to end up in a more expensive program — the Florida state prison system," added Broward County Circuit Judge Marcia Beach.

"Most people who are in Florida prisons are there because they are either a drug user or are involved with drugs," she said. Cutting back treatment programs puts more pressure on prisons, already at a record 100,000 inmates, she said.

"We are never going to build our way out of this," she said. "We know what we ought to be doing, but we can't get there."

Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who heads the Senate budget committee that oversees many of these programs, has heard it all before. He fought the drug treatment cuts and worries there will be more. His solution: start looking at eliminating tax breaks.

"You've got to take a hard look at all the options," he said.

Bibiana Salmon of Doral is so upset by the short-sightedness of the school cuts — $820-million cuts from K-12 schools this year statewide — that she has started a hunger strike.

"They are robbing our children's future," said Salmon.

Just hours before legislators finished their budget-cutting package, Gov. Charlie Crist pointed to the empty Capitol plaza and told supporters that Floridians "know and understand'' the difficult cuts lawmakers have to make.

"That's why you don't see protesters outside," he said.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com.

Millions in state budget cuts criticized as short-sighted 01/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 11:12pm]
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