tampabay.com

$72B budget would cut aid

A House-Senate compromise curtails services to disabled.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 1, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Florida lawmakers put the finishing touches on a $72-billion budget Monday, amid fears that major cuts in a deficit-ridden disabilities agency will result in fewer services for families with retarded and autistic children.

Negotiators for the House and Senate worked over the weekend, resolving relatively minor differences on funding for hospitals that treat the uninsured, college construction and other issues.

For weeks, advocates for the developmentally disabled have tried to stave off cuts in services, without success.

The budget uses $126-million to largely eliminate a massive deficit in the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, which was created three years ago to give greater emphasis to the needs of disabled.

That sum is nearly one-fifth of the agency's annual budget, and an estimated 13, 000 eligible clients are on a waiting list for services.

"I've never seen a health and human services budget cut that deeply, " said John Hall of the Association of Retarded Citizens. "There's no way that's going to happen without the families of people with developmental disabilities losing support."

The budget also compels the agency to impose cost-containment measures, which are expected to curtail the scope of services for clients.

Lawmakers said the decision was unavoidable.

Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, a lead budget negotiator, warned of "hard decisions" as the agency tries to right itself.

"We do not have unlimited resources, " said Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, the House's lead budget negotiator on human services. "We've got the agency pointed in a more solvent direction."

Despite a generally harmonious atmosphere in the Capitol, lawmakers rejected some of Gov. Charlie Crist's budget priorities, such as $37-million for a stockpile of antiviral drugs to fight avian flu, $28-million to replace touch screen voting machines with units that provide a paper trail and $20-million for stem cell research.

The Senate held firm that the voting equipment can be paid for with federal money, an issue to be considered today by the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission.

Crist asked for $75-million in tax incentives for movie and TV production in Florida. Lawmakers settled on $25-million.

Crist asked for 3 percent across-the-board raises for state employees. The Legislature will instead give workers one-time bonuses of $1, 000.

"I believe they're important for the people of our state, " Crist said of the rejected items. "I'm disappointed for the people, but there's always another opportunity. I've got four years here."

Crist did get $5-million to start an institute of government in his hometown, under the auspices of the St. Petersburg College Foundation.

Lawmakers left themselves some maneuvering room in the few days left in the session by keeping about $1.5-billion in the bank, unspent.

The largest unresolved budget issue involves transportation. The Senate wants to spend $500-million in unexpected one-time money to ramp up road construction, but the House wants to leave the money in the bank.

Lawmakers said that issue would be resolved in a separate bill in the session's closing days.

Overall, it was a peaceful year of budget negotiations, with no major public budget battles and fast agreement on a $1.2-billion boost in public school spending, nearly half of it from local property tax bills.

Budget-writers had to deal with two obstacles: a projected downturn in sales tax collections and a new limitation on the amount of one-time revenue windfalls that can be spent on continuing programs.

The budget document SB 2800 is a compromise between the House and Senate, and it must be accessible to lawmakers for 72 hours before the formality of a final vote Thursday or Friday.

Crist has the authority to veto any line-item spending item in the budget.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes/com or (850) 224-7263. Staff writer Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report.

Fast Facts:

 

Money for local projects

- Pasco County economic development: $7.5-million

- Institute of Government at St. Petersburg College: $5-million, and $510, 000 to renovate the Palladium Theater.

- Tampa Bay restoration: $2-million

- Tampa Bay Riverwalk: $2-million

- Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority: $1-million

- Pasco adolescent intervention center: $766, 325

- Fort De Soto Park fort restoration: $500, 000

- Tampa Bay reclaimed water project: $500, 000

- 25 alcohol & drug "bridge" treatment beds for women: $425, 000

- Arts for All (Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough): $300, 000

- A new Florida Highway Patrol station in Pinellas Park: $2-million

- Oldsmar's exploration of building its own water system: $500, 000

- St. Petersburg's Arts Center and the proposed Dale Chihuly museum: $500, 000

Source: SB 2800, Florida Legislature