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Budget cuts are bad, but it could be worse

Was it just six months ago that local appropriations in the state budget were bulletproof?

You remember. The current state budget includes $14-million for a new Hernando Health Department clinic and $1.1-million for the ARC Nature Coast in Brooksville to build a training center for adults with developmental disabilities that can double as a hurricane shelter. Both managed to escape budget vetoes from Gov. Charlie Crist.

Well, those days are over. The recent headline that screamed "Recession'' just confirmed what Floridians and Hernando County residents already knew. And right now, among the people most familiar with the message are state budget writers, the legislators chairing appropriation committees and the local folks who traditionally seek state funding.

"We all need to be realistic,'' said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a champion of bringing home the bacon in times of plenty.

But the so-called community budget issue requests are not to be entertained this year. That is the spending known colloquially in years past as member initiatives, turkeys or pork. Except this year, it isn't the bricks and mortar stuff. Various agencies are seeking to maintain or expand social programs helping seniors, low-income residents or people needing mental health care. All received the same bleak response.

Some of the programs could remain in the governor's budget submission.

"But the chance of getting full funding like you did in prior years is probably slim to none,'' said Fasano, whose district includes western Hernando County.

Last week, Fasano, beginning his 15th year in the Legislature, again was named chairman of the Senate committee overseeing spending on transportation and economic development. It's the same job he has held the past four years. In better times, that meant lots of Department of Transportation activity for the district.

But sales, gasoline and real estate transaction taxes are down for the second consecutive year. Revenue estimators keep missing their projections and schools and other public agencies will be asked to absorb another $2.3-billion shortfall over the next several months. All that comes before the deliberations begin on the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

What's the fun of being chair of an appropriations committee if there's so little appropriating to do?

"It's not what are we going to get, but what are we going to lose and what are we going to do to try to protect those projects,'' Fasano said.

DOT just released the latest version of its tentative five-year work program for the Tampa Bay region. There have been plenty of disappointments over the years when expenses failed to meet revenues.

To nobody's surprise in the county south of Hernando, DOT again delayed widening two-lane U.S. 41 through central Pasco. The same highway's expansive nature in still-undeveloped portions of southern Hernando hasn't escaped Pasco pols' attention. Call it six-lane envy.

"You drive to Hernando, it (U.S. 41) is beautiful, but there's nothing there,'' said Pasco Commissioner Pat Mulieri.

It would be reasonable to expect similar delays for planned road work in Hernando. Then a funny thing happened. Money for Hernando County projects suddenly appeared in the five-year work plan.


DOT must account for a $6.7-billion decline in revenue over the past two years of which the Tampa Bay region has to absorb $681-million. Yet, the tentative work program includes $39-million in new construction money for Hernando beginning July 1, 2011. To prepare, the coming budget includes $1.6-million for engineering work for those projects — resurfacing nearly 4 miles of Cortez Boulevard between Wiscon and Cobb roads, and doing likewise on more than 7.5 miles of Interstate 75.

What gives? Well, two things actually. DOT delayed two large-scale projects elsewhere in the region that accounted for more than $650-million. The result is an ability to sprinkle smaller amounts of construction money elsewhere. And, the DOT buzzwords are safety and preservation. That means resurfacing existing roads takes precedent over building new highway lanes. So State Road 50 and the interstate moved up the list.

The help is unexpected, but appreciated.

''Santa Claus came early,'' said Commissioner David Russell, chair of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Indeed. But it might be the only chimney the Tallahassee-based St. Nick visits this year.

Budget cuts are bad, but it could be worse 12/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 5:31pm]
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