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    Senate: Money is not there

    Its budget chief says that Florida is in such dire fiscal straits it has only $53-million to cover $2-billion in services.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 14, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE -- The Senate painted the bleakest picture yet of the state's finances during a briefing Thursday designed to whip up public opposition to deep budget cuts and set the stage for raising more money.

    The Senate's budget chief stunned colleagues with the news that they had just $53-million to pay for $2-billion in needs.
    For the first time in Florida history, the state will have less money to spend on general needs than it had the year before, said Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie.

    "The numbers don't lie," Pruitt said. "These are solid numbers. That's all there is."

    He got help from Senate Democrats who asked pointed questions about the need for cuts and said they urge constituents to let their voices be heard.

    But none of it moved Gov. Jeb Bush and the House. Bothoppose higher taxes or other ways to increase revenue, such as expanded gambling.

    Bush said he's happy to take the heat for budget cuts, if that's what it takes to pass a responsible budget.

    "I kind of have the job where they get to beat me up, so as they go through this therapeutic process of realizing they don't have as many options as they thought they might, . . . I'm more than happy to take that role," Bush said.

    House Speaker Johnnie Byrd repeated a phrase he has used numerous times during the budget debate: "The House will live within its means."

    And he sent a message to the Senate with the song he picked to close the House's Thursday session: We Are the Champions.

    "Some things are up, and some things are down. The main thing is living within your means," Byrd said.

    Rep. Bruce Kyle, R-Fort Myers and Pruitt's budget counterpart in the House, said that if the Senate really thinks it has just $53-million, it isn't "reprioritizing" spending as the House is.

    "I still believe we can draft a budget that meets the needs of Floridians and live within our means," Kyle said.

    Kyle not only opposes higher taxes. He is unwilling to consider other sources of revenue that King would consider, such as legalizing slot machines. The Senate has estimated that allowing slot machines at parimutuel facilities could raise more than $1-billion in added tax revenue.

    "I don't think we need to use a vice, such as a weakness in a certain segment of our society, to raise revenue," Kyle said.

    Pruitt noted that the Senate would not engage in the "wholesale" raiding of trust funds that Bush proposed to glean more cash for the budget. But Pruitt also was careful not to blame tax cuts the Republican-led Legislature has adopted in recent years. For example, a $100-million tax break would now cost $125-million, Pruitt said.

    "We would actually be worse off if we hadn't taken those tax cuts," Pruitt said.

    Democrats were just as eager not to let Bush blame recently approved constitutional amendments, such as the controversial class size amendment.

    Sen. Steven Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, said Bush is proposing a smaller increase in education spending than in the current budget, so it can't be the class size amendment. Bush has proposed asking voters to repeal the amendment.

    The $2-billion that Pruitt said the state needs in additional spending includes the class size amendment, elementary and higher education enrollment growth, optional health care programs for the poor, cultural and historical grants, matching state funds for federal grants and the state's rainy day fund.

    -- Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Michael Sandler contributed to this report.

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