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Bare-bones budgets pass both houses

Florida's House and Senate both passed no-new-taxes budgets on Tuesday, but made it clear that they are headed for a collision over raising taxes.

They also may collide over their own paychecks. Senators voted to cut legislators' $22,250 pay by 3 percent to put about $100,000 more into public schools. The House did not follow suit.

But both sides agreed that highly paid state employees ought to share in the pain that the $29.8-billion budget inflicts on the young, the old, the sick and the poor.

The Senate extended its 3 percent cut to all employees who make more than $60,000, except for medical school faculty, on the theory that cutting doctors would cause a "brain drain" to other states. The $6.6-million the Senate says would be raised would go to public schools.

The House applied the 3 percent cut to all employees above $60,000, and spread the proceeds among employees who make less than $14,672, many of whom qualify for food stamps. According to the House, the cut would yield $3.1-million.

But these are small issues compared to the tax fight brewing.

House members defeated tax increases in voice votes Tuesday. But Democratic leaders, who hold a comfortable majority in the House, said they'd soon be discussing the kind of taxes that Gov. Lawton Chiles says Florida needs to finance properly next year's budget. Chiles, who has said he will veto any budget that does not contain new money, has proposed a $1.3-billion tax package.

On the Senate side, where Democrats can't count on a majority for a tax increase, debate over the bare-bones budget was far more intense.

"We need to look at a better way to fund this budget, because this may well be the budget," Senate Minority Leader Ander Crenshaw said.

Crenshaw and the other 17 Republicans in the 40-member Senate have been saying for months that a tax increase isn't needed. They say the Democrats have cooked up unnecessarily painful cuts so they can scare Floridians into accepting a tax increase. All that's needed, they say, are better budget cuts.

So the Senate spent seven hours debating more than 60 amendments to the budget, most of which would reallocate the cuts. Some of the amendments were introduced by Democrats, and the votes did not always split along party lines.

The proposed Senate budget contains $74 less per student than the current education budget, said Republican leaders.

Senators put more money into the major pot of public school financing, but they did it by chiseling away at smaller pots. Summer school was cut by $62-million, more than a third; summer teacher training was cut $8-million; and $73-million was taken out of the fund that's used for textbooks. Senators said these steps would give school boards more freedom in spending.

They also approved a controversial measure to let school districts spend building money on operations. Opponents noted that not all districts have this money available, so the measure would make school financing unfair, but they were voted down.

Senators strove mightily to find the money to restore partially a health-care program for the working poor. They did so by cutting other social service and health-care programs, including a counseling service to fight child abuse.

They also found money to open a new prison by cutting money from elsewhere in the Department of Corrections.

Meanwhile, the House approved its version of the bare-bones budget, similar in many ways to the Senate bill. Differences are to be worked out over the coming weeks in conference committee. Among the highlights:

Both budgets toss 10,000 elderly and disabled people off the Medicaid program that pays for prescription drugs.

Both eliminate a planned expansion of prenatal care, denying coverage to 18,000 women.

The House provides schools $105 less per pupil than they had after last December's budget cuts; the Senate's figure was unclear after Tuesday night's action.

The House plan eliminates Preservation 2000, the ambitious environmental land-buying program that was supposed to buy $300-million worth of land a year. The Senate plan contains money for the program.

The House budget fails to finance operating costs for 3,108 new prison beds, leaving new facilities vacant. The Senate financed about 900 of those beds.

The House bill cuts 1,089 state jobs, following elimination of 1,907 jobs in the December special session. Senate job cuts weren't available.

The $29.8-billion budget contains $535-million in growth revenues, but those are eaten up by greatly increased demands on the state's schools, health and welfare programs, explained House Appropriations Chairman Ron Saunders, D-Key West.

The House ended its budget session Tuesday with talk of writing a new, more generous budget.

"We intend to develop a supplemental budget with the revenues to fund it and give you a chance before you go home to vote yes or no," Saunders said.

The Senate left its chambers hours later. "We've been calling this a "reality budget,' " said state Sen. Eleanor Weinstock, D-West Palm Beach. "But it has turned into a surreal budget. We're doing grave, grave damage."