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A budget charade

Florida lawmakers are working on a budget this week that most of them hope the governor will veto, and they expect the rest of us to understand why. The game, as best anyone can describe it, is to show Floridians their government is about to abandon them and hope the trauma will cause them to race into the arms of the state Legislature.

To call this game cynical gives it too much credit. It's cowardly, and it's deadly dangerous.

In the past 18 months, the state has cut nearly $2-billion from its budget. It has laid off teachers, cut back university classes, turned away mental health clients, left poor pregnant mothers without health checkups. The reductions all have been made in the name of economic recession, though the catastrophic shortages in state government revenue are only partly related to the downturn in the economy. The bigger picture is that Florida is a wealthy state that tries to run its government mostly from taxes on the poor and middle class. The result has been clear for the past two decades: The money does not keep pace with the needs.

Gov. Lawton Chiles knows that, and he is asking for some basic changes in state tax structure. Most legislative leaders also recognize it, but few of them are willing to deal with it.

In the Senate, Republicans are saying that the state must live within its means, and that government can't raise taxes in a time of recession. Those platitudes may make nice re-election commercials, but they don't get the job done. Yes, the state is in recession and its government has to be judicious with spending and taxes. But the numbers are undeniable. Florida needs more money to run its schools and social institutions, and its wealthy residents and businesses can afford to pay more _ and should pay more. To deny the question of tax fairness is to continue to put the burden of government on the backs of people who can least afford it. That's unfair in any economy.

In the Tampa Bay area, the work of five Republican senators _ Mary Grizzle of Belleair Shores, Curt Kiser of Palm Harbor, John Grant Jr. of Tampa, Malcolm Beard of Tampa and Bob Johnson of Sarasota _ will be especially critical in the coming weeks. They will be pressured to follow a partisan approach that puts elections ahead of schoolchildren, and they will show the courage of their convictions by how they respond.

Unfortunately, the Senate Republicans are not the only problem. The budget crisis also has revealed a leadership crisis. How else is it that budget writers could have considered cutting off medicine to elderly people? How could they deny health coverage to 18,000 poor pregnant women? How could they continue to reduce the per-pupil spending for public education? How could they have broken a commitment for wage increases for university workers?

The governor promises to veto the Legislature's current 1992-93 budget effort, which is headed to a conference committee this week, but the process is far from encouraging. Senate Minority Leader Ander Crenshaw is telling people he thinks the stripped-down budget "may well be the budget" that runs state government next year. Even if a veto holds, what would happen if lawmakers sent Chiles another budget charade? How long will the governor's resolve hold?

The game being played in the Capitol is a dangerous one, and Floridians should not stand for it. This state pays a price for the tax break it gives to wealthy people and businesses, and it is time for everyone to begin paying a fair share.