TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist wants the Legislature to adopt a $69.2 billion state budget for next year that relies heavily on a fresh injection of federal stimulus money, an expected economic rebound in Florida and a troubled Seminole gambling deal.
Crist's budget is $2.7 billion bigger than the current budget of $66.5 billion. He said much of the growth is necessary to pay for explosive growth in Medicaid, the health insurance program for children and the poor that eats up more than one-fourth of the entire budget.
Entering his last year as governor, Crist, a U.S. Senate candidate, said the Florida economy is rebounding. He made much of the fact that in the next budget year, the state is projected to collect $2 billion more in taxes than this year. Crist barely mentioned the federal stimulus money he's using in the budget, and he brushed aside a question about whether he's increasing the size of government during a recession.
"What it is is a recognition that we've got to continue to move forward on education and that we have a recommitment to our environment," Crist said. "I think those two things are very important to Florida's economy."
Crist's budget, which lawmakers can reject in whole or in part, calls for $100 million more for universities, $67 million more for community colleges, $51 million more for the KidCare health insurance program and $50 million each for Everglades restoration and Florida Forever, a conservation program. He also wants to boost per-student funding in public schools, provide bonuses to teachers and avoid layoffs and pay cuts for state workers.
The budget reflects Crist's trademark optimism. Its financial assumptions are underpinned by the hope that the federal government will give the state more stimulus money in future years, that the Legislature will pass a gaming compact it has rejected before and that voters will approve a weakened, less expensive class-size amendment.
Those three items add up to $1.8 billion.
No sooner had Crist released his budget than fellow Republicans in the Legislature reacted with skepticism.
"This budget is not very useful. The reasons for that are the revenues don't exist," said Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican and chief budget-writer in the House. Rivera is also a supporter of Crist's Senate opponent, former House Speaker Marco Rubio.
Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said the money from a Seminole gambling compact "doesn't exist" and that it's not likely the Senate will again seek legislative approval for blackjack and other table games on Indian lands.
Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, praised Crist's human services budget and predicted the Democratic U.S. Congress will continue to provide Florida a higher level of Medicaid money to help balance the budget. But, Rich added, his budget "might not be realistic."
With its reliance on $4 billion in stimulus money, Crist's spending plan worried lawmakers who fear it will temporarily keep some programs afloat but leave a huge unfunded hole when stimulus money runs out in 2012.
Crist said "we hope" the reliance on stimulus money doesn't leave future legislators "in a bad way."
A labor union that represents 55,000 state workers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said it was "elated" Crist's budget would not lay off any state workers or increase employees' insurance premiums.
Also preserved: health insurance coverage at taxpayer expense for many high-ranking state workers and all 160 legislators.
Crist is recommending about $200 million in assorted spending cuts in agencies, including closing little-used juvenile justice facilities in east Hillsborough, Monroe and Osceola counties.
On taxes, the governor recommends a 10-day back-to-school sales tax holiday in August, a 1 percent cut in the corporate income tax paid by businesses and a delay in a tax increase on employers that pays for unemployment benefits.
To balance the budget while he trims taxes, Crist wants voters to loosen the constitutional requirement to lower class sizes at an estimated savings of about $350 million.
His proposed budget also siphons money from savings and spending accounts and leaves just $250 million in the main budget reserves — about a third of a percent of the total budget and far less than the 5 percent savings-to-spending ratio that budget writers say is preferable to keep the state's bond rating healthy.
Passing a budget is the only act the Legislature is constitutionally required to make during its 60-day spring lawmaking session, which begins March 2. State law prohibits deficit spending, so lawmakers cannot spend more money than the state expects to collect in the fiscal year starting July 1. As governor, Crist can veto line items.
Crist acknowledged his budget relies on a number of assumptions but said pessimism isn't an option.
"If you had a leader who said: 'We're going to hell, follow me,' I don't want to follow that guy," Crist said. "We're not going there."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.