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Legislators would slice $542-million, mainly in education, health and court funding.
By Alex Leary, Times Staff Writer
Published February 26, 2008
TALLAHASSEE - As Florida's economy worsens, legislative leaders are preparing to cut another $542-million from the current budget - more than half of it in public education.
The new cuts follow $1.2-billion approved in the fall and are all but certain to upset many school districts, judges, prosecutors, health care advocates and others forced to get by with less.
"It's going to be painful," said Mark Pudlow of the Florida Education Association.
Judges are already preparing to send home thousands of court employees, grinding civil litigation to a halt for weeks. In Hillsborough County alone, 240 judicial workers could be affected.
Ron Stuart, a spokesman for the Pinellas-Pasco circuit, held out hope that the crisis could be averted.
"There are still efforts behind the scenes to get this worked out," he said.
Released Monday, the House and Senate proposed bills reducing spending in all areas of state government. Seventy-five positions would be eliminated, but those could include already vacant spots.
The amounts have not yet been discussed or debated in public meetings (and the Senate has yet to release all its details). That will come next week when the 2008 Legislature convenes for its annual two-month session. Even Gov. Charlie Crist's office faces the knife. The House version of the bill would reduce his budget by $1.9-million.
The cuts have been expected for months but are more significant than some predicted. They are driven by a worsening state housing market and skittish consumer spending that hurts sales tax collections. The overall budget is about $70-billion.
The education system bears the bulk of the cuts, $357-million. Most of that comes from K-12, which is already feeling budget whiplash.
During a budget-cutting session in the fall, lawmakers tried to blunt previous cuts by adding $120-million in nonrecurring funds to the school budget. But education officials were warned that the money could vanish, which is exactly what has happened, and then some.
All told, the K-12 system will have $233-million less to use through the end of the fiscal year in June. Part of that comes from decreasing enrollment, meaning less money will be needed to meet class-size requirements.
The education association's Pudlow said Monday night that it was too early to offer specific reaction to the proposal, only saying that it was "disappointing" education was taking the largest hit.
Colleges also face cuts to financial aid programs and other areas totaling $42-million. St. Petersburg College would lose more than $1-million if the cuts are passed.
State health care and social services will see a $37-million reduction. The cuts include $383,000 from the Parole Commission, which is already grappling with a backlog of cases. The Department of Juvenile Justice would take a $13.8-million cut.
"It will be difficult for us, but it is what it is and we're going to have to adjust," said former state Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, who just took over the agency. "And this is just the start," Peterman said. "We have another round to go."
Indeed, after they dispense with the current budget crisis, lawmakers must craft the 2008-2009 fiscal year budget.
Anticipated cuts: $2-billion.
Times staff writers Jamal Thalji and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
[Last modified February 26, 2008, 17:56:03]