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As cash runs low, legislators will meet

In the third special session this year, state lawmakers will try to cut costs amid falling revenue.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published July 25, 2007


TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's economic slump forced legislative leaders Tuesday to call a special session in September to make deeper cuts in state spending.

Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, and House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, said in a joint statement the session will begin Sept. 18 and last into early October.

"We are now confronted with the challenging but necessary task of reconciling our budget with the anticipated reductions in state revenues," Rubio said in a memo to House members.

The action was all but inevitable, considering a budget shortfall of more than $1-billion. That is the product of a depressed real estate market and weakened retail sector, which together have shrunk state revenues from documentary stamps and sales taxes.

Advocates for social services and public education will be among those bracing for the worst. About two-thirds of the state's $71-billion budget is concentrated in those two areas.

The timing of the lawmakers' announcement suggests that yet another blast of bad economic news may be around the corner.

Gov. Charlie Crist has already ordered state agencies to reduce spending by 4 percent and to curtail new programs, nonessential hiring and travel.

"Obviously, I think that's prudent," Crist said of the legislators' action. "We'll do whatever we have to do."

One possible political option to reduce a budget shortfall -- raising fees -- is probably off the table. Crist last month vetoed a bill with a modest increase in fines for noncriminal violations for police training programs -- a bill supported by law enforcement groups.

The Pruitt-Rubio announcement said that "at this time, only those issues relating to the state's budget" will be on the special session agenda.

The governor still hopes to persuade lawmakers to add a second issue: the extension of no-fault car insurance, also known as "PIP" or personal injury protection.

Under current law, all drivers must carry a minimum of medical insurance to cover injuries from collisions, but the quick-paying PIP program has been a magnet for fraudulent claims and many in the insurance industry have been eager to let it die.

It is scheduled to expire Oct. 1. Lawmakers considered extending it, but ultimately couldn't reach agreement on whether to leave it as is or change it to address the fraud issue.

Crist acknowledged Tuesday that no clear consensus among legislators has emerged on how to rewrite car insurance laws.

Legislators will hold interim committee meetings Aug. 27-29 and Sept. 10-11 in preparation for the session.

This will be the third special session in a nine-month period. Lawmakers convened in January to grapple with rising property insurance and in June on the issue of property taxes.

"We have a lot of hard choices," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House minority leader.

Gelber, a critic of past legislatures and former Gov. Jeb Bush for cutting taxes too deeply, said lawmakers should not deal with the "symptom" of declining revenue but should tackle what he called a "dysfunctional" tax system.

"Florida is a low-tax state that has somehow created a tax crisis among homeowners" while special interests enjoy exemptions and exclusions from the statewide 6 percent sales tax, Gelber said.

The special session dates must navigate around scheduling conflicts because the Jewish high holy days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana fall during that time.

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