Sides gird for Fla. budget fight

To erase a deficit, cuts in aid must be made. Not mine is the refrain.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published September 4, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Florida faces its biggest budget shortfall in two decades, and state legislators are about to decide who gets hurt and who gets spared.

A downward economic spiral driven largely by a depressed housing market has slowed the pace of tax collections, leaving a $1.1-billion paper deficit in the current budget year. As a result, lawmakers must reduce the $71-billion budget, an exercise that may soon become almost routine.

Projections show the shortfall is $2.5-billion over two years and may extend until 2010 and beyond, possibly making the current round of budget-cutting a warmup act for what lies ahead.

New taxes are out of the question in the Republican-dominated Legislature. So a delicate dance is under way as state agency chiefs, university presidents, public schools and advocates for the poor, children and elderly work to shield their programs from the worst of the cuts.

"Everybody's saying the same thing: 'Don't touch me, don't touch me,'" said Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who oversees spending for courts, prisons and criminal justice programs.

About two-thirds of the budget is in two primary areas: public education and human services. It will be virtually impossible for lawmakers to spare those areas from cuts, but those also are the programs with the most vocal and unified political constituencies.

Complicating matters is that legislators can't cut just any program.

The only way they can extricate the state from its fiscal fix is to cut so-called general revenue spending, the kind paid for with money from sales taxes, corporate income taxes and documentary stamp taxes. But that accounts for less than half of the budget. The rest is paid for largely with directed pots of money, known as trust funds, such as gasoline taxes that pay for most transportation improvements.

Legislators plan to hold a three-week special session starting Sept. 18, though they have not formally announced it. Three weeks is an unusually long period of time for a session that, for now at least, is devoted to a single subject: the budget. But lawmakers say the extra time is a cushion, in case a major impasse develops over what to cut.

One philosophical difference has already emerged. The Senate insists on 4 percent across-the-board cuts, while the House wants "targeted" cuts that treat different programs differently.

"We feel like targeted cuts are more reasonable and more effective," said Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, chairman of the House Budget and Policy Council.

For three days last week, legislators heard a steady parade of pleas from state and local officials hoping to stave off a raid on their budgets.

"The last thing there needs to be in this state are more tourist murders," said Bill Cervone, state attorney for the Gainesville area, as he urged legislators not to cut money for prosecutors.

Some officials warned lawmakers that their budgets already fall short of the state's needs, even before cuts are made.

"It is not possible to go very deeply into our budget without serious and substantial consequences for the people we serve," said Bob Butterworth, secretary of the Department of Children and Families under Gov. Charlie Crist.

Like most human service agencies, DCF relies heavily on an infusion of federal matching money.

Other chiefs of human service programs warned lawmakers that because state funds are matched by more generous federal matching money, any reduction in state appropriations means an even greater loss - from Washington. For example, 57 cents of every Medicaid dollar spent in Florida comes from the federal government, so a $1-billion cut in state revenue results in a $2.3-billion loss from Washington.

For that reason, said lobbyist Karen Woodall, an advocate for children and poor women, legislators should minimize cuts in human service programs.

"The human services part of the budget raises the most revenue for the state," Woodall said.

Many agencies propose cutting jobs only as a last resort, and some have devised imaginative proposals that represent a major break with the status quo.

For example, Corrections Secretary James McDonough has proposed allowing about 3,000 low risk, nonviolent inmates in work release programs to spend the last year of their sentences living in homes of their sponsors rather than in state work release camps, to ease their transition back into society.

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

On the chopping block?

Later this month, the Legislature will consider hundreds of proposed budget cuts to close a $1.1-billion shortfall in the current budget year. Here are 10 proposals likely to generate debate.

K-12 public schools $721-million

Highway expansion, repair $80-million

Juvenile detention centers $18-million

State aid to local libraries $5-million

Shift juror, witness fees to court clerks $4.5-million

Johnnie Byrd Alzheimer's Institute $4-million

Public radio and TV stations $1.1-million

Extend driver's license terms to 8 years $762,471

End DARE youth education program $376,362

End state oversight of crossing guards $91,231

Sources: State of Florida; Florida Legislature