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Agencies seeking $1.4-billion more

With $260-million recently chopped from this year's state budget, it already is time to start working on next year's budget. But don't think the recent cuts have trimmed the budgetary aspirations of state officials. Gov. Bob Martinez and the Cabinet considered requests for seven agencies on Tuesday that total $1.4-billion more than their current budgets. That is more than this year's record tax increase.

Martinez has campaigned for re-election on a pledge of no new taxes, and opponent Lawton Chiles promises to make government "smaller and smarter."

Whoever gets elected is likely to face difficult decisions with the Legislature this spring on paring the agencies' requests.

Here are the increases that the seven agencies asked for Tuesday:

Department of Education: 17 percent, or $1.2-billion.

Department of Natural Resources: 42 percent, or $74-million.

Department of Law Enforcement: 17.8 percent, or $17.9-million.

Department of Revenue: 23.5 percent, or $23-million.

Department of General Services: 26 percent, or $32-million.

Department of Veterans Affairs: 12.6 percent, or $801,000.

Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles: 25 percent, or $65-million.

It is by no means certain that any agency will get what it wants. Typical practice is to ask for a lot and then

watch it get winnowed down during a process that isn't finished until the end of the legislative session.

This year the budgeting process has been accelerated by the possibility that voters will approve a referendum forcing the Legislature to convene earlier next year. So the Cabinet didn't have time to cut back the big requests before they were sent on to the Legislature. It did have time to complain about them.

"It's not helpful to the Legislature to have requests that clearly won't meet revenue," said Secretary of State Jim Smith.

"It's real easy to manage an agency when you don't make any priorities," said Martinez, who soon will be submitting his own budget recommendations to the Legislature.

Actually, the governor and Cabinet haven't concluded their cuts in this year's budget. They were scheduled to take final action on the Legislature's budget and the state courts budget Tuesday, but had to postpone their vote because of confusion over how the Legislature is taking its cuts.

The Department of Education is asking for the largest dollar increase next year, $1.2-billion. Education Commissioner Betty Castor noted that the public schools are expecting 100,000 new students next year. She also pointed out the need to step up programs involving young children and technical education.

Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Secretary Tom Gardner, who has put in for a whopping 42-percent increase, has asked for even more in the past, and has been chastised by Martinez for doing so. But, DNR spokesman Randy Lewis said, Gardner asks for so much because "he believes his duty is to tell the Legislature what's needed to run the department at an optimum level."

Gardner said the DNR faces a crunch because the Legislature approved the Preservation 2000 bonding plan to buy new state lands, but it didn't provide money for DNR to manage the land.