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A Times Editorial

House budget planners penny wise, pound foolish

Penny wise and pound foolish. That's the potential impact of next year's state budget due to Republican legislators' refusal to raise revenue or include potential federal dollars. Lawmakers, striving to finish budget negotiations by Tuesday, are contemplating devastating cuts rather than embracing other options for softening the blow. They should reconsider. A contingency budget would provide better lives for those who receive services or get a job. And it would cost taxpayers much less than the alternatives.

So far, House leaders have refused to accept the Senate's reasonable proposal to adopt a contingency budget to use if an estimated $880 million more in federal stimulus money for Medicaid is delivered by Congress. The U.S. House and Senate have agreed to spend the money but disagree on the details. The money should ultimately arrive. It's in the state's interest to have a spending plan ready rather than contemplate a legislative special session.

Instead, House leaders have agreed to spend only $115 million of the potential money. It's an overly cautious approach that is forcing foolish, shortsighted cuts.

Among the potential impacts:

• A 50 percent reduction in funding for Healthy Families, a Republican-created home visitation program that is credited with saving the state millions of dollars in child support costs by preventing child abuse and neglect in high-risk families.

• A $120 million raid from state road building funds, which will stall future projects and cost needed construction jobs even as the state's unemployment ranks are at historic highs.

• A combined cut of nearly $29 million in mental health and substance abuse programs that help unstable or at-risk individuals stay off the street and out of jail. Department of Children and Families analysts predict the loss of funding for the community-based programs will ultimately swell demand for jail beds and indigent hospital care — both of which are far more expensive for taxpayers.

House leaders have contended such recurring expenses shouldn't be financed with one-time dollars, such as the extra Medicaid payments. And while that sounds good in theory, in practice, with Florida's unemployment rate at 12.3 percent and the state economy still sluggish, it is also cold-hearted and shortsighted. A child at risk for abuse whose parents get counseling has a better chance. An unemployed construction worker who gets a road-building job not only improves the state's infrastructure he also contributes more to the state's economy. And individuals whose state-paid mental health services help them stay employed and off the street contribute, rather than cost, society.

House Speaker Larry Cretul and his lieutenants should agree to a contingency plan. It's the humane and fiscally conservative thing to do.

House budget planners penny wise, pound foolish 04/22/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 22, 2010 8:56pm]
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