Hard sell awaits Crist in Capitol

The state Legislature reconvenes with budget cuts looming.

By Steve Bousquet, Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler, and Alex Leary, Times Staff Writers
Published March 4, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - It will take all the optimism Gov. Charlie Crist can muster in his State of the State speech today to put a happy face on the Florida Legislature's 2008 session.

The stagnant economy is casting a lengthening shadow over the state Capitol. Lawmakers open their annual 60-day session today amid growing partisanship and frustration over a lack of money. Largely absent is much of the buoyancy of a year ago.

Crist, who will give the traditional opening day speech at 6 p.m. in hopes of reaching a larger TV audience, is expected to reassure the public that better times are just around the corner.

But the budget news got bleaker still Monday. And the state Democratic party went on the attack against Crist with a Web site labeling him "empty-chair Charlie" - a jab at his frequent campaigning for presidential candidate John McCain. The attack revives a phrase Crist used against his Democratic rival, Rep. Jim Davis, during the 2006 election.

"It's going to be a rough, rough time," said Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee. "This is my 26th year, and it's the worst I've seen."

Already on Monday, House members grew testy over discussions of how to cut $543-million to balance this year's budget in the face of declining tax revenues. And their leaders said next year's budget will require $2.5-billion in cuts, up from a previous estimate of $2-billion.

The higher number is in anticipation of next week, when state economists are expected to report again that they've overestimated tax collections.

When added to $1.1-billion in cuts made in an October special session, the reductions over two years total more than $4-billion - the biggest cuts since 1991.

For lawmakers who define success in part by how much money they can bring home, being forced to cut spending over and over is not a pleasant task, especially in an election year.

Republicans tried to minimize the effect, saying the latest cuts are reductions in previously approved increases.

For example, public schools are expected to take the biggest hit. Lawmakers are expected next week to approve a 1.2 percent cut, or $224-million. Even with the cut, per-pupil spending is still up 4.5 percent annually.

"There's a big difference between cuts and reductions," said House Budget Chairman Ray Sansom, R-Destin. "We're not cutting anything. We have to balance the budget. ... This is not the United States Congress. We cannot spend in a deficit. We have to live within our means."

Sansom's comments came as his House Policy and Budget Council approved the plan on a largely party-line vote.

Democrats said the full impact of cuts wasn't clear, such as a $500,000 cut to PACE Center for Girls, which provides education, counseling and other programs for troubled girls ages 12 to 18.

"We will pay for what we're doing today," said Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindinghall, D-Miami.

Also drawing fire were plans to cut funding for the court system, including state attorneys and public defenders.

Even after Republican leaders backed off steeper cuts late last week, two state attorney offices and 11 of 20 public defenders say they will still have to temporarily lay off employees.

The Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office warned it may "furlough" workers for up to 12 days, though lawmakers said that could still be averted.

Democrats went on the attack. "We're nickel-and-diming a branch of government that has constitutional responsibility," said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Fort Lauderdale, a lawyer.

Republicans criticized Democrats for opposing cuts without proposing where they would find the money to avoid them.

"To come here to point fingers is not really getting us off to a good start," said House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach.

But the tension isn't just across party lines. Crist says the budget cuts are unnecessary if lawmakers dig deeper into rainy-day funds and boost state revenues from more gambling.

He also has challenged pessimistic assessments of the cuts' impact and recently suggested that if university presidents are upset with their schools' quality, "maybe they ought to turn the reins over to somebody else."

Some fellow Republicans, however, don't share his assessment and say Florida risks doing real harm to its higher education system. The Senate proposes cutting $92-million in the current year's budget, bringing the total cuts this year to $209.5-million.

Times staff writer Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

To watch:

State of the State

Tonight's State of the State address will be televised live at 6 on Bay News 9 and PBS stations WEDU and WUSF.

Fast facts:

On the agenda

The 2008 Legislature opens for its regular 60-day session today. The five top issues its 160 members will face:

Budget: A flat economy will force lawmakers to cut this year's and next year's budgets, meaning less money for schools, health care and other programs. There's also little money for new initiatives. Look for a fight over how much to tap state reserves to soften the blows of cuts.

Property taxes: The House will push again for steep cuts in property taxes, but the Senate prefers to wait and see if the recently passed tax cut amendment fires up the real estate market.

Gambling: To raise cash, Gov. Charlie Crist is banking on new lottery games and his deal for slot machines on Seminole tribal lands. But House GOP leaders staunchly oppose more gambling.

Health care: Crist proposes relying on untested market strategies to reduce the number of people in Florida with no health insurance (one in four under age 65). A separate program targets the uninsured poor in 13 counties, including Hillsborough.

Wrongfully imprisoned: After years of delays, lawmakers appear more willing to compensate people wrongfully incarcerated. But some would be denied if they had past felony convictions, such as Alan Crotzer, formerly of St. Petersburg, who spent 24 years in state prison before DNA evidence exonerated him in 2006.

Times staff