By DIANE RADO
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- Facing a mounting public relations problem over proposals to cut programs for public schools and poor people, Gov. Jeb Bush and top Republicans moved Tuesday to ease fears about the state's finances.
"The economy is not going down the tubes," Bush said, citing growth in personal income and a "world-class business environment" in Florida.
State revenues are still growing, though not as quickly as in years past. In Bush's budget proposal, overall spending on public schools and Medicaid would still increase. But the budget for next year is tight for a variety of reasons, including growth in the number of people on Medicaid.
Florida could be nearly $1-billion short to provide Medicaid coverage to everyone on the rolls, as well as cover Medicaid deficits from this year and last. That might mean cuts in specific programs.
The governor emphasized that Florida faced much more difficult budget years in the early 1990s.
"This is not a crisis," agreed Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Horne, R-Orange Park, who is a certified public accountant: "The sky is not falling."
Both Horne and House budget Chairman Carlos Lacasa, R-Miami, acknowledged Tuesday that the Republican-led Legislature's discussions of budget cuts are motivated in part by philosophy.
The state Senate is discussing cuts in the health care programs for the poor, elderly and disabled because there are "tons of inefficiencies" in the Medicaid program, Horne said. "We have got to rein that in," he said.
However, some of the most controversial cuts that have been proposed will not be approved by the full Senate, Horne said, including reducing health care for poor pregnant women and eliminating benefits that allow poor seniors to get eyeglasses, hearing aids and dentures.
"The truth is, we will approve a budget that will meet the needs of the state," Horne said.
In the House, Lacasa said budget cuts are being considered, in part, to make room for priorities such as road-building and increased higher education funding. In addition, the House has already given preliminary approval to Bush's $222.2-million cut in the intangibles tax on investments.
Bush also wants to limit the size of government in general, cutting the state's work force and giving public work to the private sector.
The Republican priorities have infuriated Democrats, social service advocates and educators, who say Florida is not spending enough on the needy and schoolchildren while giving tax breaks that largely benefit the wealthy.
In the first two weeks of the session, a public relations campaign to discredit Republicans has begun: Democrats have sent out a stream of news releases criticizing the Republican votes on the intangibles tax and other issues. The state's teachers union plans to launch a statewide radio campaign today.
"You have an administration that doesn't believe that government should be providing the services they are providing," said critic Karen Woodall, representing the National Association of Social Workers and other organizations.
The Legislature created the tight budget picture, she said, because for last two years lawmakers have approved over $1-billion in tax breaks.
Lawmakers also are proposing billions of dollars in pork barrel projects. The Senate's project list adds up to $2.3-billion, and the House list adds up to $5.2-billion, though the numbers are inflated because more than one lawmaker can propose the same project.
Gov. Bush, who has vetoed lawmakers' pet projects the last two years, indicated Tuesday he will do the same this year.