tampabay.com

Budget: The state budget and tax cuts are where the campaign rhetoric will meet the road.

Campaign promises can be costly. In a tight budget year, can politicians show us the money and where it will be spent? And as Florida keeps developing, can the wetlands be saved?

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published March 4, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - The reality is sinking in that there's not enough money in the state budget for Gov. Charlie Crist to keep all of his campaign promises and cut taxes, too.

"The budget's going to be much leaner than people thought," said Rep. Jack Seiler of Fort Lauderdale, the ranking Democrat on the House Policy and Budget Council. "Some of these ambitious projects and programs that Charlie wanted to bring forward are probably going to have to wait."

Case in point may be the most cherished bill on the governor's agenda, his "antimurder" proposal that would automatically jail felons for probation violations. Crist campaigned on the issue and has vowed to make it a top priority of his first legislative session as governor.

But the antimurder bill has grown in scope from the one Crist first proposed. Crist's first budget includes $22-million to start the antimurder program, but that conservative cost estimate is only the beginning.

A legislative analysis predicts the cost will balloon to a total of $269-million over the next five years, with many of those criminals kept in county jails at the expense of county taxpayers, not the state.

A Senate analysis of the bill contains this fiscal red flag: "The impact on local government is indeterminate but could be significant."

That's bureaucratese for beware.

Crist's campaign promises were free. Carrying out those promises will cost billions.

Crist's first budget is $2.4-billion less than the current year's, but includes a $1.3-billion boost in education funding and a host of new spending initiatives.

Among them are salary bonuses for outstanding teachers, 400 reading coaches, 50 cyber-crime sleuths, grants for stem cell research, treatment beds for the mentally ill, new voting machines and a stepped-up adoption awareness program.

Crist would freeze tuition rates at universities and community colleges, even while allocating enough money to pay for the expected surge in new students next fall.

Unlike his predecessor, Jeb Bush, who sought to repeal the class size amendment, Crist has budgeted an additional $613-million for it next year.

"You feel the pressure of what's just happened," Crist said, reflecting on his election. "The duty to strive to do a good job and make good on what you talked about during the course of the campaign."

At the same time, Crist is promising Floridians a big cut in property taxes, including extending the 3 percent annual property tax cap to businesses and vacation homes, which will reduce state revenues by hundreds of millions of dollars in future years.

The effect is less money for counties and cities, which in recent years have shouldered an increasing share of the state's burden, especially for public schools.

This is the first year that lawmakers must build a budget without the quick-fix fiscal gimmickry of past years when they plugged budget holes with one-time unexpected pots of money.

It was like taking a cash advance on a credit card, and worrying about repaying it later. But voters restricted the practice last November by passing a constitutional amendment that limits to 3 percent the amount of one-time money that can be spent on recurring expenses.

Fortunately for Crist and the Legislature, public school enrollment in Florida is on a downward trend after more than a decade of steady increases.

Because of a formula that is based on student population, that could save the state more than $200-million this year alone while easing some of the pressure to meet the numerical demands of the class size amendment.

By nature, Crist does not like to disappoint people. But every year, a lot of people are disappointed by what's not in the state budget.

For example, a team of child advocates led by Roy Miller of the Children's Campaign Inc. found Crist's budget recommendations "lacking in a proactive response in many regards." They added that Crist has inherited inadequate state support for prenatal care, foster care, delinquency prevention and preschool education.

Crist offered a stay-the-course continuation funding for Healthy Start, a program that provides health care to pregnant women, infants and children up to age 3, even though experts say less than half of the current state need is now being met.

A difficult budget year could prove to be Crist's biggest political test yet.

In battling the insurance industry, Crist had consumers on his side. And almost everyone thinks their taxes are too high. The budget is a different story. Legions of constituency groups are demanding help, and it doesn't take long for the numbers to reach the billions.

Supporters of Florida KidCare, a state-run health insurance program for children, are disappointed that Crist's budget offered no increase and no money to promote the program so more families can enroll in it.

The difference, lobbyists say, is that Crist is open-minded about revising his budget proposals, so people whose spending proposals have been rejected feel they are being heard.

"It's not an excellent budget for us," said Karen Woodall, a lobbyist who advocates on behalf of children and the poor. "But I'm not distressed by that, because his office has been working with a lot of people who want to make changes. I think they're getting it."

Crist's budget staff is led by Jerry McDaniel, a longtime fiscal hand in the attorney general's office, where budget battles were very fair.

They may be short on experience, but their understated approach in dealing with legislators is likely to go a long way.

"I'm just so impressed with the low-key, soft-sell approach by his budget guys," Democratic Rep. Seiler said. "I think Charlie's willing to say that there's got to be a shared sacrifice."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

For A Better Florida is the St. Petersburg Times' preview of the annual legislative session. Published every year since 1951, it presents news articles and opinions intended to stimulate debate over some of the most important issues facing our state. This is the final of a three-part series. To read the earlier segments, go to politics.tampabay.com on the Web for articles on property insurance, property tax, education and transportation.