Gov. Lawton Chiles surprised legislators Wednesday by showing up at a House budget committee to urge support of higher taxes for his "investment budget."
It was the first time legislators could recall a governor appearing before a legislative committee. The House Appropriations Committee was listening to speakers explain how services would suffer under the no-new-tax budget under consideration in the House and Senate.
Chiles, who was watching on the closed circuit network that broadcasts legislative meetings, called the House speaker's office and said he wanted to address the committee about the budget cuts and his tax proposal to restore many of the cut programs.
"I know of no time when the governor and Legislature have cut $2-billion off the spending path," Chiles said.
He told the legislators about town meetings he has held around the state to explain his investment budget and rally support. At a meeting in Orlando, a foster mother told of a program that provides parenting training for mothers who had abandoned their babies. Many of the mothers are crack addicts getting rehabilitation. Now the program has been cut.
"Is that one of the belt tightenings we can do? Or is that one of the dumbest things in the world we can do?" Chiles said. "What is the alternative to cutting that out? Sending those women to prison?
"That's about where we're going. And those kids are going to cycle from one foster home to another."
Except for Chiles' appearance, the House Appropriations Committee spent all day on a mostly scripted series of speakers who supported Chiles' budget. House and Senate budget committees have passed a 1992-93 budget that includes no new taxes. But the House is beginning to look at a $1.1-billion tax proposal that would boost spending for schools, community colleges and state universities, health care, children's welfare, prisons, law enforcement and the environment.
Bob Williams, secretary of the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS), said the Legislature has cut the HRS budget by $1-billion, eliminating 2,700 jobs, while the agency's workload has increased by nearly 1-million clients.
Williams said one elderly woman who would be cut from a program that pays for prescription drugs summed up the consequences: "If they cut me off, I'm going to die. That's it in a nutshell."
Williams said $446-million is needed to restore part of the cuts the Legislature has made since 1990 and to begin such programs as Chiles' "Healthy Start" initiative for pregnant women and theirbabies. Even that amount won't allow Florida to invest in all the health and welfare programs residents require, he said.
Education Commissioner Betty Castor said the need in K-12 and student financial aid is $700-million for next year to get back to where they were before budget cuts over the past 18 months.
In prisons, the need is $101-million. Without new taxes, inmates will continue to serve only 36 percent of their terms and new prisons will remain vacant.
Preventing problems, said Chiles' budget director Doug Cook, is what the governor's investment budget is about. The no-new-tax budget, which legislators call a reality budget, will cost more money down the road.
"I would suggest the reality budget is abandon ship," he said. "We're throwing old people and women and children off first, and there's no life raft."
Also Wednesday, the House Finance and Tax Committee took its first look at the $1.1-billion tax plan crafted by committee chairman Mike Abrams, D-North Miami Beach. The proposal would raise the money through business taxes, increased taxes on wealth and extension of the sales tax to a variety of goods and services now exempt.
Abrams' bill would add sales tax to fuels that utilities buy to make electricity, raising $145-million.
State Rep. Tom Banjanin, R-Pensacola, said he had heard that part of the bill would raise electricity bills by 10 percent. Abrams said the figure is erroneous.
"You will hear between now and next week about locusts and devastation and the seven plagues of Israel," Abrams said. Abrams hopes to vote the bill out of committee next week.
In a meeting earlier with Democratic members of the Finance and Tax Committee, Chiles urged support for his taxes even though the public obviously is not clamoring to pay more taxes.
"If we're waiting for them all the time, it's never going to happen," he said. "I don't think the process is supposed to work that way.
"Sometimes it means you have to get way out there and it's lonesome."
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"Is that one of the belt tightenings we can do? Or is that one of the dumbest things in the world we can do? What is the alternative to cutting that out? Sending those women to prison? That's about where we're going. And those kids are going to cycle from one foster home to another."
GOV. LAWTON CHILES,
on the elimination of
a program that helps mothers
who had abandoned their babies.