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Legislature patches budget leak

The debate grew heated and the hour grew late, but in the end legislators followed their script Thursday: They plugged a gap in the state budget by squeezing money out of special trust funds. That gets Florida through the final three weeks of the budget year, but Gov. Lawton Chiles predicted that the state will see more difficulties as the recession drags on.

Several legislators argued against the stopgap budget rescue, saying that it's not right to dedicate certain taxes and fees for a specific purpose and then renege on the promise.

But most legislators agreed that after nearly $1-billion already had to be cut from state services financed mostly by sales tax dollars, it was time to go after a different part of the budget.

"Most members understand this is an extraordinary situation," said House Appropriations Chairman Ron Saunders, D-Key West. "We are desperate."

In a morning news conference before the session began, Chiles defended the idea of tapping trust funds for the short-term fix. He pointed to a pie chart showing that 60 percent of the state's money is tied up in trust funds while only 40 percent is in the state's main bank account controlled by the governor and Cabinet. He compared that to a family out of money for essentials but unable to draw on reserves that aren't needed for every day expenses.

"That means you can't go buy groceries, you can't pay your rent," he said. "These are all state taxpayers' dollars. They all belong to us. . . . We're not going to interrupt the purpose of any of the trust funds. But we now think there's a surplus that will not be used for some period of time."

Some lawmakers later expressed surprise at Chiles' prediction that the state will see another big deficit this fall. The current budget was enacted after lawmakers knew that tax revenues were plummeting.

Over the past three months, the state has come up $151.3-million short on tax collections, due mostly to the recession. Because so much already has been cut in the last year from the portion of the budget financed by sales taxes, lawmakers agreed it was time to raid funds usually set aside for special purposes.

From a fund earmarked for reclaiming land mined for phosphate, they pulled $20-million. That money will be repaid over three years. Another $9-million came from a fund that is supposed to purchase a new radio system for law enforcement, but was never spent.

Nearly $8-million came from the abandoned bank accounts that are forwarded to the state for collection. Usually, if the state can't find the owners, the money goes to education. Trimming another 0.25 percent from agency budgets accounted for $28-million.

A fund for state construction projects, mostly prisons, yielded another $20-million. Chiles had recommended cutting a $5.2-million juvenile detention center in Pinellas County, but the facility was salvaged after strong lobbying by Rep. Lars Hafner, D-St. Petersburg, and other Pinellas legislators.

The rest of the money came from skimming off up to a year's worth of interest from a number of trust funds, including those that pay for university dormitory workers and parking lot attendants. No promises were made to repay that money, however, because to do so would just throw the state into another deficit next month when the new fiscal year begins, Saunders explained.

University Chancellor Charles Reed had feared that the interest cut would be bad news for universities, but taking a bigger chunk out of the phosphate fund averted deeper cuts in the universities' budgets for such items as student housing and parking.

Senate Republicans made the most aggressive attack on the financing plan worked out by Chiles and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate.

Sen. Richard Langley, R-Clermont, said the Legislature should have left the problem to Chiles and the Cabinet, which earlier had made budget cuts. He said the "quarter to midnight" crisis was only made necessary because Chiles and the Cabinet had failed to act for a month on the shortfall.

"They haven't done one thing about that since we left here," he said.

The session was scheduled from noon to 6 p.m. But as senators balked at the plan, Chiles extended the session to midnight.

However, the Senate soon fell in line with the plan that legislative leaders had worked out Wednesday, and the day's business was finished by 6:30.

In addition to filling the budget hole, legislators also appropriated $14-million for the new High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University.

Chiles had vetoed the appropriation because he thought the university should try to negotiate the best price possible for the building in Tallahassee that it plans to purchase, rather than just give all $14-million to the owner. Legislators reappropriated the money, and provided that the purchase be negotiated for the best deal.

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