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Steve Bousquet: Legislature's 'Golden Age' looks tarnished

The leanest — and, critics say, meanest — budget in a long time is headed to Gov. Charlie Crist's desk. It could send the political leadership of this state into uncharted election-year territory.

Crist is on record as having "no inclination to veto" items in the $66-billion budget approved on the session's last day Friday.

Why would he? As he reminds us, we're living in a magic time: "the golden age of the Florida Legislature."

If only it were true. Not even Charlie Crist can put a happy face on this situation.

It's a miserable budget, unless you're in the business of building prisons or providing unemployment benefits.

Floridians will feel its impacts in ways large and small, from salary freezes for government workers to longer lines at public health clinics.

People will pay higher fees at the courthouse and higher tuition on campus — even as fewer college courses will be offered. Those that are will be more crowded and taught by less-qualified instructors.

Nursing homes will have to lay off employees. Schools will lose teachers and kids will lose field trips. Probation officers will handle higher caseloads.

Some "golden age," huh?

Since last fall, three rounds of budget cuts caused by the drop in tax collections have taken $900-million out of public education in Florida, a state that already lags in nearly every measurable academic standard. If you're poor or disabled, it could be worse.

What do we have here? A courageous show of fiscal responsibility by the Republican legislature and governor, or irresponsibility of epic proportions?

Legislators cut money for foster children, adoptive parents and people with epilepsy. They really did reduce funding to the state-run School for the Deaf and Blind, explaining that it was the same as the 1.8-percent cut to public schools.

The 2008 session ended just as it began. Republicans congratulated themselves on their fiscal discipline and opposition to new taxes while Democrats decried the GOP's refusal to consider revenue options like increasing one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the country or closing even a few of those 250-odd sales tax exemptions.

The House could not convince the Senate to agree to a one-year suspension of $21-million in annual tax giveaways to professional sports stadiums, including two spring training facilities whose teams have permanently left the state.

"We were placed in a revenue box. This box had no windows and no doors," said a frustrated Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg.

"You have to remember, it's not our money," countered another St. Petersburg lawmaker, Republican Jim Frishe. "It's not fun, but sometimes governing right isn't fun."

Frishe voted for the budget and Kriseman voted against it.

Both men face re-election this fall. Both of them cannot possibly be right. Even if the two political parties don't make this lean-and-mean budget a campaign issue, voters will feel its effect on their lives.

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

Steve Bousquet: Legislature's 'Golden Age' looks tarnished 05/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 2, 2008 8:48pm]
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