Rainy day fund troubles governor
By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- When Hurricane Andrew ripped through South Florida 10 years ago, it left behind a swath of felled trees, crushed homes and a $150-million bill the state had to pay to get federal aid.
If another Andrew pummels Florida this year, the state would be $50-million short. That's because lawmakers left just $98-million in the state's "rainy day fund," a fraction of what normally is there.
That worries Gov. Jeb Bush as he begins to work through the budget before he signs it. He is expected to get the budget today and has 15 days to consider it.
"We are living in uncertain times," Bush said this week. Federal officials continue to warn of terrorist attacks, and unemployment claims are rising, he said.
The fund will grow slightly from money state agencies don't spend, but big increases would have to come from projects Bush vetoes. "That is their intent," Bush said of lawmakers.
That may be the biggest irony of the new state budget: After years of complaining that the Republican governor vetoed too many of their pet projects, the Republican-controlled Legislature is now counting on vetoes to replenish the rainy day fund.
Senate President John McKay, for example, said he's not worried because he figures Bush will veto plenty of projects. The governor has vetoed about $300-million each of the past three years.
But Bush said he had not planned to veto that much this year because more projects were scrutinized and recommended by state agencies before they were added to the budget.
"So I'm confronted with a strange irony," Bush said.
That's only the half of it. While counting on vetoes, lawmakers made it harder for Bush to veto projects by burying more of them in lump sums, such as the $74-million McKay wants for the Ringling Art Museum in Sarasota.
Bush can veto only specific appropriations, which means he can veto all of the $74-million but can't carve out a particular project.
But that doesn't make the project veto-proof, said Rep. Carlos Lacasa, the Miami Republican and House budget chairman. The museum is overseen by the Florida State University Board of Trustees, whose members were appointed by Bush. So they just might listen if he suggests the museum should get less, Lacasa said.
It's also legally questionable, said Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, a nonpartisan government watchdog group in Tallahassee. Calabro questioned whether the Legislature can delegate its spending authority to another entity, such as a board of trustees.
"Taking that to a logical extreme, what's to stop the Legislature from simply appropriating a $50.4-billion lump sum" and letting state agencies divvy it up, Calabro asked.
The governor must be able to approve or veto all of the budget as part of the state's checks and balances, Calabro said.
The Legislature's new lump-sum style of budgeting also makes it harder for TaxWatch to compile its annual list of "turkeys," local projects it thinks Bush should veto, Calabro said.
Calabro said he's as concerned as Bush about the small rainy day fund, especially as the state enters hurricane season.
"It's a virtual certainty that Florida, with its coastline, is going to get severe weather," Calabro said.
-- Times Staff Writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
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