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Rick Scott's toughest budget sell: the Republican Legislature

This ain't just a "budget cut." It's an amputation.

The big news in Florida this week was that our new Republican governor, Rick Scott, came out with his first proposed state budget.

It's dramatic. Lots of people hate it already. They're calling it unrealistic, unfair, unwise, even deceptive.

And those are the governor's fellow Republicans over in the Legislature. (Most of the Democrats are still in a dead faint.)

So here is the decision facing the legislative Republicans this spring:

Should they cut only as much as it takes to make up an already-grim shortfall?

Or should they cut even deeper, as the governor is asking, so we also can pass tax cuts, mostly for business?

No matter how conservative they are, the Legislature's Republicans know they're on the hook.

They're the ones who have to give the news to the parents of Florida schoolchildren, to the unemployed, to rape victims and abused children and the disabled losing their services, to fired prison guards.

They aren't going to cut spending as much as the governor wants, and they aren't going to cut taxes as much as he wants either.

• • •

Overall, the governor would cut next year's state spending from $70.3 billion to $65.9 billion. He wants to cut even more the year after that, but let's cross one bridge at a time.

His plan includes:

• A 10 percent cut in public education spending per pupil in grades K-12. (The schools might be able to get some of that back through other budget tricks.)

• Cutting 8,600 state jobs, about 7 percent of the total, with the biggest cuts in the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Corrections.

• Requiring all 655,000 state, county and school district employees to contribute 5 percent of their salary for the state pension plan.

• Big changes in the state's expensive Medicaid program, including cutting what the state will pay and turning over control to private "managed care" companies.

• Getting rid of the state agency that manages growth in Florida, the Department of Community Affairs, merging it into the Department of Environmental Protection.

• Reducing unemployment benefits for Floridians and using general tax dollars to pay off Florida's debts in that regard, instead of accepting President Barack Obama's latest offer of another federal handout.

Homeless services? Cut. Separate funds for minority business assistance, school suicide prevention, domestic violence, coastal cleanup? Eliminated. Money for university improvement, buying environmental land? Zero.

In fact, the governor would eliminate 124 "trust funds," each based on some fee or another, to put that money into the general government.

• • •

For the rest of the week, ranking Republicans in the Legislature questioned the budget.

One senator proclaimed the cutting of prison guards to be "a nonstarter" and said it was unwise to take money out of a road-building trust fund.

Another worried the education budget was based on "smoke and mirrors."

A third said that taking money out of trust funds, which often come from fees on business, was a de facto tax increase.

On Friday I sat in on a conversation with Dean Cannon, the new speaker of the state House. He said all the right things about the governor, heaping him with praise.

But it was clear that Cannon has no intention of taking the governor's advice about the budget to "just pass it." It will be tough to cut taxes, he said. The governor's school cuts are "just too big." He was cautious about eliminating departments and privatizing.

The bottom line is that our new governor is doing pretty much what he said he was going to do, putting the interests of Florida business above all else. The victims will complain; the newspapers will be filled with their stories; the Democrats will howl — but to the extent the governor does not get his way, it will be because Republicans said so.

Rick Scott's toughest budget sell: the Republican Legislature 02/12/11 [Last modified: Sunday, February 13, 2011 12:45pm]
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