House bill slashes $518M in spending

The cuts next year will dwarf this year's.

By Alex Leary, Times Political Editor
Published March 6, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - The Florida House approved $518-million in budget cuts Wednesday, but only after bitter partisan disagreement over the effect on schools and courts.

The cuts - more than half of which affect public schools - apply to the current fiscal year that ends June 30. The Senate is expected to take up the plan (HB 7009) today.

The five-hour debate on the House floor, on just the second day of the 60-day session, was just a preview for a more difficult task: Cutting $2.5-billion or more from next year's budget.

"Nobody likes to make cuts," said Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral. "But if there's one thing that Florida families understand, it's the reality that we can't have everything that we want."

Democrats said Republicans are putting the state at risk by not tapping reserve funds to mitigate some of the cuts.

Only one amendment offered to restore cuts was successful, one that restored merit pay for teachers. Among those that failed were amendments to prevent the potential closing of two treatment centers for girls and to avoid employee furloughs in the judicial system

Republicans, who already agreed to restore some judicial funding, said they will work on the issue during negotiations with the Senate.

Still, the cuts to the 2007-08 budget weren't as severe as the $543-million initially proposed.

An amendment on the floor restored $8-million in bonuses for teachers and earlier legislative leaders had agreed to scale back cuts to the judicial branch.

Still, Democrats noted that roughly $340-million comes from education.

"Public schools will give our economy the boost that it so deserves," said Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, D-Miami. "Cut pork, not opportunities."

Rep. Joe Pickens, the Palatka Republican who oversees the education budget, said even after the reductions, public schools still receive a 4.5 percent increase over last year's budget, or $302 per student.

"It isn't raining and clouds are coming," Pickens said. "We're doing this to be prepared for what those clouds might bring."

Squabbling began immediately, when Democrats offered an amendment to restore $1.9-million in grants for low-income college students.

Republicans said the cut would not affect any students this year, only reduce the base budget next year.

"No. 1, know your issue. No 2, do your homework," said Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa

The remark incited Democratic leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, who accused his counterparts of crafting the budget cuts in secret and not allowing for a fuller vetting before Wednesday.

"This isn't just some little game where we talk about who's prepared and who's not," Gelber said. "This is serious stuff."

The budget plan was approved, 75-41.