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Florida House committee approves $66.5B budget with deep cuts

TALLAHASSEE — The size and scope of Florida's $3.8 billion budget shortfall came into sharper focus Wednesday as a key House committee approved a $66.5 billion budget with deep cuts in education, health care and other services.

Few programs and services were spared, from student financial aid to state parks to foster children to public broadcasting. The weather reinforced the dreary message as heavy rain pelted the Capitol for much of the day.

The budget cuts are due to a lengthy recession that has left Florida tax collections flat as its Medicaid rolls swell to nearly 3 million. The Republican Legislature won't raise taxes or fees, making cuts the only option. The biggest losers: State workers, who will see their salaries cut to beef up their retirement plans. The proposed budget also cuts 5,300 jobs, thousands of which are filled by state workers.

"There are no winners in our budget," said Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater. "But I'm not interested in passing on any new taxes to anyone."

The House Appropriations Committee passed the budget along with a 15-8 vote, GOP members voting yes and Democrats voting no. Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, had an excused absence and didn't vote.

"Faced with the economy we're in, there was absolutely no other choice," said Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, who crafted the House education budget.

The House's 7 percent cut in public school spending will mean $463 less per pupil next year, the lowest level of K-12 spending since 2005. The House also cuts Medicaid reimbursement rates to hospitals and nursing homes by 7 percent.

College and university tuition would rise by 5 percent and Bright Futures scholarships would be cut by 15 percent.

The most hotly debated part of the House budget is a plan to save money by turning state prison and probation operations in Miami-Dade and Broward counties over to private companies by 2012. Private companies would have to run programs for at least 7 percent less.

"When you have less money, you can't continue to do business as usual," said Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, who oversees prison spending.

Democrats said privatizing prisons and probation would cost some state correctional officers their jobs and that it was dangerous to rely on a for-profit company to supervise people on probation.

"I'm very concerned that public safety could be jeopardized," said Rep. Martin Kiar, D-Davie, who voted against the privatization plan along with the seven other Democrats on the 24-member panel.

State attorneys and public defenders would be required to absorb 5 percent cuts, the equivalent of 370 full-time jobs. The House also wants to redistribute money to three judicial circuits, largely at the expense of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

House leaders say outmoded funding formulas fail to adequately take into account population growth in the court systems in greater Orlando, Ocala and Naples.

The House budget also eliminates the state Office of Drug Control and provides no money for beach restoration or the Florida Forever land-acquisition program. Funding for Everglades restoration would be reduced from $50 million to $26 million.

Neither the House nor the Senate budgets leave much room for tax-and-fee cuts — a subtle rebuke of Gov. Rick Scott, who wanted $2.4 billion in revenue reductions, including a significant property-tax cut. Senate President Mike Haridopolos said Wednesday that the Senate could still come up with some tax cuts, but they won't be large.

Like the House, the Senate deeply cuts spending as well. The Senate trims health care spending by a greater amount, but spends more on schools. The two chambers' budget plans sharply differ, but must be reconciled by the end of session May 6. Unlike the House, the Senate seeks to take over operations of expressway authorities in Tampa Bay, the Orlando area and the Panhandle. Also, the Senate pulls state water management districts into its budget. The two proposals helps make the bottom-line Senate budget $69.8 billion — $3.2 billion bigger than the House plan. The Senate cuts slightly fewer salaried positions, about 5,000.

One big difference: The House raids single-purpose trust fund accounts by $704 million, including $300 million from the category used for building and repairing roads and bridges. Bob Burleson of the Florida Transportation Builders Association said the "sweep" would threaten 25,000 jobs and up to $1 billion in construction work.

Frank Brogan, chancellor of the state university system, voiced concern at a $78 million cut in student financial aid in the House budget, a 15 percent decline from current spending.

"It's getting costlier to go to college and that's a fact," Brogan said. "The kind of support students need needs to be increasing, not decreasing."

The Senate Budget Committee will take up its $69.8 billion budget Thursday, setting up floor votes in both chambers to be followed by extensive budget negotiations in the second half of the nine-week session.

Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida House committee approves $66.5B budget with deep cuts 03/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 7:06pm]
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