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Session could be short but sharp

With the state's budget situation again growing worse, Thursday afternoon's special legislative session is shaping up to be a bit thornier than expected. The revenue shortfall, the main reason for the session, now appears to be at least $160-million for the past few months. That's $60-million more than state officials had hoped.

Finding that kind of money to cut from the budget and getting the House, Senate and governor to agree won't be easy.

"If there are any easy solutions to this, we've probably already tried them," said House Appropriations Chairman Ron Saunders.

Further complicating Thursday's agenda is the fact that Chiles doesn't just want the Legislature to cut the budget. He wants lawmakers to relinquish some of their budgeting power to him so he can handle future crises as he sees fit.

Few seem likely to roll over for that one.

"The Legislature is very jealous of their constitutional authority just as the governor is jealous of his," remarked Randy Lewis, House Speaker T.K. Wetherell's spokesman.

The state has trimmed its budget several times in response to recession-tight tax collections since the fiscal year began last July 1. But 60 percent of the state's money is in trust funds, specially designated pots of money that can only be cut by the Legislature.

Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet declared that after almost $1-billion in cuts, they have trimmed as much as they can out of the portion of the budget they control, and now it's the Legislature's turn.

But how the money will be trimmed from the trust funds is an unresolved question. Chiles wants to get the money by taking big chunks out of a few big trust funds, such as the fund that is used to reclaim land that has been mined for phosphate.

Senate President Gwen Margolis wants to spread out the pain by extracting the last year's worth of interest from most of the trust funds, which would raise about $116-million. The rest of the deficit would come from postponing state construction projects, mostly prisons, and trimming a small amount, 0.25 percent, from state agency budgets.

Trust funds deemed particularly vital, such as those for education and transportation, likely would be exempt from the cut, Saunders said.

The House hasn't committed to either proposal, he said. But the problem with the governor's idea is that his plan calls for the trust fund cut to be repaid next year, Saunders said, adding that the state's revenues for next year probably won't permit that.

Meanwhile, Chiles thinks the solution to such disputes would be to give him more power.

"Our economy still is going down," he said. "As we start into the next year we may see further downturns. Are we going to keep coming back for six-hour sessions, or are they going to give me some tools to manage?"

In remarks to the Tax and Budget Reform Commission on Tuesday, Chiles said he believes giving the governor more authority is a key reform that Florida needs to manage its financial affairs more wisely.

He was preaching to the choir. The commission recommended to the Legislature months ago that it give the governor more power, but the idea failed during the regular session.

Chiles also gave the commission, which has been criticized as a do-nothing group, a list of 10 tasks that he wants to see completed in the coming months.

Margolis has strongly criticized the commission's inaction in the past and did so again Tuesday. But Chiles was gentler in his remarks.

"I felt like it would be only fair for us to tell them what we need," he said when asked why he gave the independent commission instructions.

The commission has the power to put its ideas directly before the voters on the ballot, but Chiles said that prospect doesn't trouble him much.

"I doubt very seriously that group's going to do that," he said. "If anything, I'm trying to get them to act bold enough.

"I'm not worried about them acting too bold."