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Crist proposes tight environmental budget

Gov. Charlie Crist proposed a $2.1 billion environmental-protection budget Friday that's a reflection of the dire financial times: bare bones and lacking new initiatives.

The centerpiece of his proposal was a call to spend $50 million more for Everglades restoration and $50 million for the Florida Forever land-buying program begun by then-Gov. Bob Martinez.

"Because of our challenging economy of last year, we held back on continuing that important legacy," Crist said. "This year, I'm honored to revive it."

Environmentalists were pleased that some money was directed toward the programs. "It's a start, something," said Eric Draper, chief lobbyist for Audubon of Florida.

But the Legislature might wind up cutting the money anyway, when lawmakers start building the budget in March. The new budget year begins July 1.

Crist also wants to continue cleaning up leaky fuel tanks and proposes small cuts to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

And he announced he wants to spend $176 million in federal money next year that remained unspent this year.

Next year's budget shortfall could range between $1.1 billion and $3.2 billion.

Legislative leaders predict that some state workers could be laid off or see their health care or retirement benefits pared back.

Neither Crist nor his fellow Republicans who control the Legislature are proposing boosting fees or taxes. Last year, Crist proposed an increased tax on large water-bottling companies — a proposal absent from this environmental budget proposal.

Now, in an election year, Crist wants to reduce the corporate income tax for a total savings — and cost to the state treasury — of $55 million to $160 million. Crist also proposed a back-to-school sales tax "holiday'' worth about $24 million.

"Every budget proposal is a campaign document for a governor running for election," said Rep. Ron Saunders, a Key West Democrat who sits on a House budget committee. "I'm not sure how the Legislature will take Crist's budget. Last year, they took it and threw it in the trash can. He proposes, the Legislature disposes."

For Floridians who want to examine how every dollar is spent, the Senate this week unveiled a new Web site, transparencyflorida.gov, that offers unprecedented insight into Florida's budget.

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@miamiherald.com.

Crist proposes tight environmental budget 01/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 22, 2010 9:42pm]
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