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    Senate leader is not buying into Bush budget proposal

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 13, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE -- State Sen. Ken Pruitt today plans to deliver more bad news about the budget: The state has just $130-million to pay for about $1-billion in needs.

    Those needs include reducing class sizes, growing school enrollment, cultural grants and the state's rainy-day fund.

    "It's either severe cuts or revenue increase or a combination of the two," said Pruitt, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman.

    Pruitt's presentation will be a very public airing of Gov. Jeb Bush's spending plan. Bush's budget relies on sweeping more than $1-billion from the state's trust funds, special accounts set aside for specific needs.

    But Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, and Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, have balked at raiding trust funds, saying it is at best bad policy and at worst in violation of state and federal rules.

    "We're not going to abandon our fiscal policy and discipline," Pruitt said.

    Pruitt's presentation will be the latest chapter in the growing fight between the Senate and Bush. Even Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher has said he's concerned about the extent of trust fund transfers Bush has proposed. Some transfers would require changing state law and others could violate federal rules, he said.

    But Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings said she isn't worried about the Senate's budget presentation.

    "The Senate has a tradition of talking about the issues in an open forum," Jennings said Wednesday, including when she ran the chamber. "I think tomorrow is about dialogue and information" not finger pointing, Jennings added.

    Pruitt and his Appropriations staff have taken the unusual step of going door-to-door in the Senate Office Building, showing senators charts and graphs that paint a very dire picture of the state's finances.

    "I can't recall an Appropriations chair and staff coming around to the members, letting them know what's going on," said Sen. Steven Geller, D-Hallandale Beach.

    Senate Democrats are preparing a series of questions to ask Pruitt that will highlight in a very public way the extent of the cuts needed if lawmakers approve Bush's budget.

    "The only way this is going to change is if the public becomes outraged by the cuts in health care and hospitals and education," said Senate Democratic Leader Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton.

    Even with money from trust funds, Bush's spending plan called for cutting $148-million in university operating funds. Changes in state Medicaid reimbursement were expected to cost hospitals across the state hundreds of millions more, including a $10-million hit for Tampa General Hospital. That's half the hospital's projected profit, said hospital CFO Steven Short.

    "Ultimately I think it will be threatening to the hospital's ability to operate," Short said.

    But Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, said it's too early to panic. Only when the three-day waiting period for a budget vote begins will anyone know the outcome, Sebesta said.

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