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    House budget awash in tough choices

    The proposal calls for tax cuts and teacher bonuses, while cutting university spending and raising tuition 12.5 percent.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 29, 2003


    TALLAHASSEE -- The House laid out its priorities for Florida on Friday with a budget that boosts teacher pay and sets aside millions of dollars for tax cuts.

    But the plan also would cut money for universities, raise tuition as much as 12.5 percent and cut millions for public school textbooks.

    The $52.2-billion budget passed on a party-line vote in the 44-member Appropriations Committee, which comprises more than a third of the House.

    "This is a budget that will work for the state of Florida," said House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City.

    Another Republican was less charitable. "Our day of pain," Rep. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, called the series of cuts.

    House leaders said they can meet the state's core needs without new taxes.

    The House sets aside as much as $100-million for tax cuts, but some of the money might be used for a wartime economic stimulus program.

    The tax cuts involve continuing the phaseout of the tax on investment portfolios and the return of the popular sales tax holiday on back-to-school purchases.

    The House would erase Gov. Jeb Bush's proposed cuts in runaway shelters, PACE Centers for Girls and the medically needy, a high-profile program for sick people who have used up their own insurance. The House also would allocate $315-million in salary bonuses for teachers.

    But the House rejected a proposal made four days ago to limit participation in the Bright Futures scholarship program to families with incomes of $75,000 a year or less. Its author, Rep. David Simmons, R-Longwood, conceded it was unpopular.

    As House Republicans praised each other for a job well done, Senate President Jim King ripped the spending plan as a "house of cards" that has so many accounting tricks "it's like juggling grenades."

    Byrd blasted the Senate for "good ol' boy gamesmanship" and accused King of wanting only to expand gambling in Florida.

    And that's just what the Republicans said about each other. Democrats weren't happy, either.

    The verbal crossfire is not new, but it is getting meaner, and it could make it much more difficult for the two feuding Republicans to agree on a budget in the five weeks left in the regular session.

    The Senate has offered a meager budget with deeper cuts partly to make a case for more money.

    The House uses $1.3-billion from trust funds and makes one-time raids of $875-million to pay for recurring programs.

    Every Democrat-sponsored amendment was rejected, including a program to improve self-esteem among black youths to steer them away from crime and delinquency.

    Signs of discontent were apparent, too. When Rep. Gaston Cantens, R-Miami, tried to secure $1-million more for a four-year teaching program at Miami-Dade Community College, Rep. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, turned on him.

    "I have a question: How dare you? I can't believe we'd even consider this," said Detert, who was forced to withdraw a $1.3-million amendment for New College. Some other lawmakers quietly joined the discussion, and Cantens dropped the amendment.

    Cantens sponsored other amendments to force state agencies to fire in-house lobbyists and secretaries, slashing 74 full-time jobs and saving $5.8-million. Every agency except for the governor's office was targeted. Cantens said he couldn't find any money for Gov. Jeb Bush's legislative affairs office.

    Cantens said he wants to get rid of "lobbyists," but Democratic Rep. Curtis Richardson of Tallahassee, who represents many state workers, said the cuts would victimize women who earn $20,000 a year.

    "He must have iced tea in his veins, to support a thing like that," Richardson said of Cantens.

    The most controversial decision was to raid all the money from an affordable housing trust fund, which comes from taxes paid by home buyers, and send millions to other programs.

    House members said $194-million would be set aside for housing, with up to $125-million more shifted to day-to-day expenses.

    Closing the fund means that in future years, housing must compete with every other program. A dozen lobby groups including cities, counties, bankers, builders and real estate agents, joined forces to block the housing fund raid, saying some working people would be unable to buy homes.

    The housing fund is named in memory of Bill Sadowski, a former House member from Miami and a champion of the poor who died in a plane crash in 1992.

    In an odd twist, the House budgeted $2.2-million to help pay to move the state library's circulating collection of more than 300,000 books to the private Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.

    That's far less than the $5-million the school says it needs, but Byrd says he's opposed to the transfer.

    "Don't start boxing it up yet," Byrd said. "I'm against moving the library."

    -- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

    House priorities

    The $52.2-billion budget, passed on a party-line vote in the 44-member Appropriations Committee, proposes:

    Raising university tuition 12.5 percent.

    Approving $315-million for teacher salary bonuses.

    Setting aside up to $100-million for tax cuts.

    Erasing Gov. Jeb Bush's proposed cuts in runaway shelters, PACE Centers for Girls and the medically needy.

    Rejecting a plan to limit participation in the popular Bright Futures scholarship program.

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