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Politics

Crist's $71-billion wish list

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published February 3, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist proposed a $71-billion budget Friday that includes money for teacher pay and stem cell research, mandatory daily exercise classes for students through fifth grade, and more treatment beds to keep the mentally ill out of jails.

The governor's budget proposal also would freeze tuition at Florida universities and community colleges, give 2.4 percent pay raises to state workers, and expand the state payroll by nearly 900 employees, more than half of them for the state prison system.

The initial Crist budget lays bare the philosophical differences with his predecessor, Jeb Bush.

Crist's tax cuts of $200-million are much smaller than Bush's, and Crist would spend an additional $613-million to pay for the class size amendment Bush sought to repeal.

Crist's budget is a starting point in negotiations with legislators over the next few months. But like Jeb Bush in 1999, as a new governor with a cooperative Legislature, Crist is likely to get most of what he's seeking.

As a statement of his priorities, and as an effort to put his money where his mouth was as a candidate, Crist is calling for the replacement of most touch screen voting machines, a crackdown on probation violators and creation of an office to promote the adoption of children.

But even as Crist is calling for steep rollbacks in property taxes, he wants to collect an additional $450-million in property tax revenue from Floridians next year to operate public schools.

To do that, Crist would cut by 2 percent the rate of a state-imposed tax that counties must levy to pay their share of school budgets. The continued swelling of property values across the state means that even that small rate cut would bring in more money next year.

Public school spending in Florida is a combination of state money collected from sales taxes, local money raised from property taxes, and federal grants.

About one-third of Crist's recommended $1.4-billion increase for public schools comes from local property taxes.

That's too much, said Democrats, who criticized Crist for relying too much on property taxes to generate money for schools.

"The state's fixed education budget should not be balanced on the backs of our homeowners," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House Democratic leader.

Overall education spending would increase by 4 percent under Crist's budget, with about $500 more per pupil in grades K-12. A total of $3.8-billion is earmarked for compliance with the voter-approved class size amendment, including $2.7-billion in operational costs and $1.1-billion more to build schools.

Crist nearly doubles Bush's merit-based teacher pay plan, to $295-million. The money would give bonuses of 10 percent to the top-performing 25 percent of teachers in the state.

Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, a teacher union, said many teachers would prefer increases in their base salaries instead of bonuses for two reasons: Higher base pay means better retirement benefits and helps teachers in seeking to buy homes or applying for credit.

"We're still nearly $6,000 below the national average in terms of teacher salaries," Pudlow said.

Crist also wants lawmakers to approve about $200-million in tax cuts. Among them are making permanent the sales tax-free back-to-school holiday, extending from one week to two weeks the tax holiday on the purchase of energy-efficient appliances, and cutting by one-quarter of 1 percent a communications services tax collected on cell phones and cable and satellite TV.

His proposal includes hiring 400 coaches to help struggling young readers at a cost of $138-million.

He is proposing passage of an "antimurder" initiative to keep more probation violators behind bars at a cost of $22-million; business incentives to spur the manufacture and use of ethanol and biodiesel fuel at a cost of $50-million; and new tax incentives for film and movie production in Florida costing $75-million.

A smaller budget

The first Crist budget to be submitted to the Legislature is $2.4-billion less than the last budget of his predecessor, fellow Republican Jeb Bush.

Several factors account for the drop.

They include an unexpected $791-million dip in road construction costs, the use of borrowed money rather than cash for some environmental programs and an end of one-time purchases in the current budget, such as $715-million to reduce assessments on property insurance and $310-million to buy Babcock Ranch in southwest Florida.

Democratic legislators had both praise and criticism.

They liked the tuition freeze and more money for reducing class sizes, but found money for health care and prekindergarten education lacking.

Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, said Crist's budget shortchanges the KidCare program, leaving too many Florida children without insurance.

Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindinghall, D-Miami, called Crist's overall education budget a status quo approach with a lack of meaningful teacher pay increases.

Praise came from other quarters. A leading environmental group, Audubon of Florida, said Crist's recommendations would increase support for land-acquisition and help restore the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and St. Lucie and Caloosahatchie estuaries.

Focus on emergency

Crist's release of a budget proposal marked the first time in modern history that the governor didn't appear in public to promote his spending plan. Instead, he rushed to Lake County, northwest of Orlando, where he declared a state of emergency in four counties after overnight tornadoes brought death and destruction.

Budget aides to the governor said it is likely Crist would seek more money from the Legislature in the weeks to come, after his new agency chiefs have more time to assess their needs.

The governor's complete proposal can be viewed at www.thepeoplesbudget.state.fl.us.

Times staff writer Joni James and researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

Fast Facts:

Notable pieces of a $71-billion plan

- Bonuses for the best teachers: $295-million.

- Mandatory daily exercise classes through Grade 5, and $1.3-billion for the governor's commission on obesity prevention.

- More money for treatment beds to keep the mentally ill out of jail: $79-million.

- Tuition freeze at state universities and community colleges.

- Pay raises of 2.44 percent to state workers on Oct. 1 and expansion of the state payroll by nearly 900 workers, more than half of them in the state prison system.

- More than $600-million to help pay for implementation of a constitutional amendment limiting class size.

Read the budget for yourself

The entire budget can be found at links.tampabay.com.

[Last modified February 3, 2007, 00:39:33]


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