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Senate pads its budget plan

It is unclear where the extra $1.4-billion would be found. A fight with the House looms.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published April 4, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Republicans and Democrats in the Senate joined forces Thursday and voted to increase their original state spending plan by $1.4-billion, mostly for schools and health care. What they didn't say was where they would get the money.

Higher taxes? More gambling? They'll decide that later.

For now, the Senate is content to send a message: State government needs more money to meet the needs of Floridians.

Thursday's action sets up a clash with the House, which takes up a budget today that aggressively raids trust funds and makes dozens of cuts, many of which are not yet evident in the House's complex budgeting system.

The money would boost state aid to hospitals and schools, increase college student financial aid, give raises to state workers and continue a program that gives eyeglasses, hearing aids and dental care to poor people without insurance.

It also would raise public school spending by $290 per student. That is more than twice as much as the House's no-new-taxes plan.

Senators said the House approach is filled with risky accounting methods that postpone today's budget shortfalls one more year.

"They obscure the obvious with sound bites and rhetoric, they cross their fingers, and they hope to wish it away," Senate Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said of the House.

The Senate's dilemma: Neither the House nor Gov. Jeb Bush support expanded gambling or new taxes. The big question is how determined the Senate is in the face of such vehement opposition.

"I don't want to get into a protracted fight that extends the session beyond where it should be simply to throw grenades at each other," said Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "I'm not saying I want to wiggle, but I also know the realities of a 2-to-1 battle."

Senators hope their bigger budget will draw support from advocates for schools and human services. But many people are preoccupied with war, not state spending.

The Senate session was partly an exercise in political spin, like the House with its self-described family friendly budget, but with a big difference: Senators focused on programs that must be cut or eliminated without more money.

The Senate wants new state taxes or fees totaling about $950-million. The remaining $450-million is federal money that comes to Florida when state expenditures are increased.

House leaders said the Senate's way is political suicide for a party that has run the Legislature only since 1996. House Majority Leader Marco Rubio, R-Coral Gables, said voters prefer Republicans because they support lower taxes and less government.

"It was those Republican ideas that provided our success over the last 20 years. If we give that away, we're no different than the Democrats," Rubio said. "I think there's an ideological battle for control of the Republican Party."

Thursday's votes were an awkward initiation for Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, who was sworn in last week after winning a special election to replace the late Howard Futch.

Haridopolos ran for the seat supporting less government and lower taxes and, as a House member, he helped found the antitax Freedom Caucus. "Every time the Legislature raises your taxes, we are taking your freedom away," Haridopolos told his hometown paper, Florida Today, last month.

Yet he voted for, and in some cases co-sponsored, $1.3-billion in spending that must be supported with more taxes. He said he didn't see any contradiction.

"I think what we're trying to do is create an optimum budget," Haridopolos said. "If we do not have the revenue, I cannot support tax increases to provide additional funding."

King said senators who co-sponsored spending increases are "pretty well locked in" to vote for raising the money, though he said no senator should feel obligated to support more gambling.

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 4, 2003, 02:33:12]


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