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Good, bad news with possible failure of HRS cuts

An ambitious but controversial plan to change how Florida spends money on social services may have died in the budgets that House and Senate committees passed this week.

That's a relief to Pinellas and Pasco County public health officials, who stood to lose $1.45-million under the plan. "That's certainly very good news for us," said Dr. John P. Heilman, Pinellas health director.

But it may be bad news for the state as a whole, which would benefit if the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services started a more logical way of spending its money, HRS Secretary Jim Towey said Friday.

"I just wouldn't want to see all the work we've done go into the Dumpster," Towey said.

Towey recently tried to reinvent how the state finances programs such as drug treatment, elderly care and public health.

He drew up a plan that seeks to spend the most money in the counties that have the greatest need, by checking poverty statistics and other factors. Local HRS advisory boards approved the plan.

Towey admitted his plan wasn't perfect, but he said it would greatly improve a system so archaic that HRS ends up spending tens of millions of dollars without knowing why.

But legislation that passed the House Appropriations Committee contains language that specifically bars HRS from changing the current spending formulas next year because doing so "could result in diminution of services to current clients and financial instability of current providers."

In other words, while some counties might get more, others would lose out.

Overall, Pinellas and Pasco counties would have suffered a $3.57-million cut, out of about $128.5-million, under the plan. It included a $350,913 cut for a day-care plan, and a $280,565 cut for an adult drug-treatment program.

On the other hand, Hillsborough and Manatee counties would have added $700,000 to their $149-million combined budget. Although that meant increases in some areas, it also included a $1.4-million bite out of subsidized day care.

State Rep. Lars Hafner, D-St. Petersburg, said it was extremely important to make sure the state would continue funding important programs for elderly and needy residents in Pinellas County. A plan to cut those programs didn't sound fair to him.

"We fought hard to get that provision in," said Hafner, referring to the language in the House bill. "We believed the old formula worked fine."

Hafner vowed to fight hard to make sure the Senate adopts the provision also. "That will be one of my top priorities," he said.

The Senate might not be hard to convince. The Senate bill didn't contain the exact language that kills the new formula. But it says HRS can reallocate only new money it receives and can't change the existing amounts.

Senators are willing to try the idea, but want to make sure that no counties get cut, said Sen. William "Doc" Myers, R-Hobe Sound, chairman of the HRS Committee.

That will amount to only a small percentage of the $900-million Towey wanted to redirect, he said.

Sen. Ken Jenne, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the issue might not be as important as it sounds. He expects HRS will be broken into smaller agencies over the next few years. For example, the governor and legislators this week said they plan to remove HRS' juvenile justice programs and create a new agency for them. Similar split-offs could occur later, Jenne said.

In the meantime, Towey said, he still will fight to win approval for his plan before the Legislature passes its final budget later in the session. He admits to feeling outgunned.

"I feel very much like David, with not too many rocks," he said.