State balances budget, wary of 2008

By trimming some programs and delaying others, lawmakers make ends meet for now.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published October 10, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Now that legislators have plugged a billion-dollar hole in the budget, the reaction from many corners is the same: It could have been worse, and next year it probably will be.

By trimming some programs and delaying others, reducing grants and abolishing 433 state jobs, lawmakers wiped the red ink off the state's balance sheet.

The cutting is not over. With state tax collections still slowed by a housing slump, legislators expect to have $900-million less to work with in assembling next year's budget, possibly requiring deeper cuts in an election year.

The projection will be sharpened in November when state economists update Florida's revenue forecast that's used to determine how much money is available.

"Hopefully, we'll have an economy that will turn around a little bit, so we won't have to come back and do this again in the spring," said Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, the lead Senate budget negotiator.

The current-year cut in public education was 1.4 percent, but a big chunk of that was purely on paper. A one-year delay in a new teacher merit pay plan reduced the cut, in real money, to seven-tenths of 1 percent.

Pinellas schools will lose $11-million in state aid, Hillsborough $19.5-million, Pasco $6.6-million and Hernando $2.3-million. In each case, about half of the loss is a merit pay plan not yet begun.

"When you have a Republican House and Senate and a teachers' union all in agreement that the reductions are okay, I think we've accomplished our goal," said Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, the lead House negotiator.

The union, the Florida Education Association, has long aligned itself with Democrats in opposing school spending cuts.

"It's more a matter of being relieved than being happy about it," said the FEA's Marshall Ogletree.

Next up: approval

All that's left is the formality of a Friday vote after a constitutionally mandated 72-hour review period.

The revised budget is the work of a conference committee and cannot be changed. Gov. Charlie Crist can veto line item cuts, the effect of which would be to raise spending by a governor who has repeatedly emphasized the need for belt-tightening.

Crist hinted Tuesday he will likely support a 5 percent university and community college tuition hike that he vetoed last May.

"I am increasingly open-minded," Crist said. "I haven't reached a conclusion yet."

Lawmakers added a provision allowing yearly tuition hikes to cover inflation.

Positions eliminated

Nearly half of the 433 jobs eliminated in the bureaucracy are in the prison system, mostly in inmate health care and probation supervision. Another 57 are state trooper positions that are chronically hard to fill because the starting pay is substantially less than what local police departments pay.

One program that escaped the budget knife largely unscathed is the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute in Tampa, named after the father of the former House speaker from Plant City.

Once slated to lose $10-million of its annual $15-million grant, the Byrd center will lose $1.5-million.

Florida's 21 hospital trauma centers also will see their state reimbursement rates drop by only 1 percent, compared to 3 percent for more than 200 other hospitals.

Hospitals also stand to lose $65-million yearly for the cost of treating uninsured legal immigrants by shortening the hospital stays required to stabilize patients.

Much of that cost is shared by public hospitals in South Florida and Tampa General, all in areas with large immigrant populations.

"We are still very uncomfortable with the cut. These are people sanctioned by the federal government to be here, and we've got to pay for them," said Tony Carvalho, a lobbyist for the Florida Hospital Association. "All of it is a transfer of uncompensated care to our communities."

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