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House raids housing fund to avoid seeking new taxes

Representatives present their balanced $52-billion budget proposal, with the GOP railing the Senate for calling for $1.4-billion in unspecified new taxes.

Published April 5, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - The House fine-tuned a $52-billion no-new-taxes budget Friday that puts it on a collision course with the Senate, which has a more generous plan backed by unspecified new taxes.

An eight-hour House session, like the Senate's the day earlier, was filled with rhetoric, with the Republicans who run the House calling their "family-friendly" budget superior to the Senate's with its reliance on higher taxes or slot machine revenue.

"A real budget, based on real dollars, that helps real people," House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, told lawmakers.

Democrats were less optimistic. They said budget cuts could mean people will die.

They cited a provision that requires about 26,000 sick people to spend all but $450 of their monthly income on medical bills before they qualify for coverage, starting May 1. The "share of cost" plan enabled House leaders to say they had restored the popular Medically Needy program.

"None of us in this chamber could live on $450 a month," said Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-New Smyrna Beach. "This is the death knell, literally, for many of these people."

Democrats proposed shifting $57-million from a $100-million fund set aside by Republicans for tax cuts or economic stimulus programs. The GOP majority crushed the amendment 71-39.

Democrats did succeed at capping the state-funded portion of university presidents' salaries at $225,000.

While the Senate's budget depends on $1.4-billion in unspecificed new taxes, the House's budget-balancing act continued to draw criticism.

To pay the state's bills next year, the House emptied a separate fund for housing for the poor, and set aside $194-million for housing for next year only. A recent surge in home refinancing has helped the fund grow dramatically, but the move has angered bankers and developers, who generally favor Republicans.

But Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration, called the fund "a financial lock box" that restricts the power of lawmakers to set spending priorities.

On another controversial issue, the House handed Gov. Jeb Bush a defeat by refusing to move the state library's circulating collection of 360,000 books to the private Nova Southeastern University in Broward County. Senators also rejected the transfer, so the House vote kills an idea that Bush defended in the face of opposition from library supporters and historians across the state.

Another House budget provision reflects the growing cost of another Bush initiative: privatization. The House shifted nearly $1-million from prison expenses to a private company for cost increases in a contract to provide meals to inmates. The amendment was sponsored by Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor.

Byrd surprised House members Friday afternoon when he called an unusual House session Tuesday for what shapes up as a public funeral for a Senate tax proposal to levy a new fee on buyers of new and existing homes to build schools. Byrd wants to put Republicans on record against the fee so he can claim that he alone isn't holding up a budget agreement.

"You all know how I feel about increasing taxes but I do not want my personal views to be the reason the chambers can't agree," Byrd said.

The same tactic - turning the House into a "committee of the whole" - was used last year by Speaker Tom Feeney to torpedo a sweeping Senate tax reform proposal.

"Been there, done that," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie.

The impact fee bill (SB 1022), by Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, would replace impact fees on new houses in 16 counties. The proposal has split two influential lobby groups, with home builders supportive and Realtors opposed.

House Democratic Leader Doug Wiles of St. Augustine said Byrd "hijacked" the agenda to kill a bill that does not even exist in the House. Referring to the split between the House and Senate, Wiles said: "It appears that we're headed for a massive train wreck."

That scenario worries Bush, too. He urged Byrd and Senate President Jim King to settle dozens of budget disputes so the session can end on time May 2, but King said he and Byrd haven't spoken for two weeks.

"It's time for them to communicate with each other and come up with a consensus on the budget," Bush said.

House Democrats, outnumbered 81-39, tried a series of proposals without much success.

They tried to remove university tuition increases of up to 12.5 percent, but Republicans insisted the tuition hikes stay in, and they won 75-40.

The day ended, as it always does, with the sound of rock music, chosen for its political message. Friday's choice: Money for Nothing by Dire Straits.

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 5, 2003, 01:46:58]

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