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    House committee okays budget, a $53.2-billion study in contrasts

    Despite a tight budget year, a Florida House committee's $53.2-billion plan includes many local projects.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2001

    TALLAHASSEE -- There was enough money to steer $75,000 to EXPONICA International 2001, a Latin American festival in South Florida.

    The Tarpon Springs Heritage Museum & Park would get $150,000 to help highlight the city's Greek heritage and the impact of the sponge trade on the area.

    And the city of Hallandale in Broward County would receive $100,000 to help expand its community center for city programs and private events such as wedding receptions.

    Those, and millions more in lawmakers' pet projects, were rushed into the state House's proposed budget for Florida on Friday, demonstrating the irony of this year's budget process.

    The Legislature has been struggling with the tightest budget year in a decade, mostly because of a nearly $1-billion shortfall in the Medicaid program. Yet lawmakers are still trying to make sure they can take home the bacon.

    House budget Chairman Carlos Lacasa, R-Miami, said Friday that the House has cut some $500-million in the Medicaid budget in 2001-02 to cover the shortfall that stems from deficits in prior years and an unexpected rise in eligible Medicaid clients for next year.

    Overall, he said, the Medicaid budget that covers health care for poor people will rise next year because of the dramatic increase in clients. And the House plans to restore some of the most controversial cuts -- including reducing benefits for poor pregnant women -- when the budget goes up for a vote before the full House next week.

    On Friday, the main House budget committee completed its work, approving a $53.2-billion budget and making a flurry of last-minute changes -- many of them lawmakers' pet projects -- with little explanation.

    "It's a good amendment for our friends down in Pasco County," Rep. Jerry Maygarden, R-Pensacola, said, trying to explain a $100,000 appropriation for the Heritage Park Foundation. The project, being pushed by House Majority Leader Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and other lawmakers, will help acquire property to display historic Pasco buildings.

    House members on the budget committee also approved $120,250 for a statewide "shellfish aquaculture extension program," $100,000 for Curtis Peterson Park in Lakeland and $100,000 for renovations at the Plant City State Farmers' Market, among other projects.

    In addition, the budget committee approved road improvements; wastewater treatment and stormwater projects; and health and social services programs in communities.

    Lacasa defended the local projects, often labeled "turkeys," even in a tight budget year. He said the wishes of communities are not always reflected in budgets submitted by state agencies.

    The Senate approved its version of a state budget earlier this week. The full House and Senate will approve their spending plans next week. After that, the two sides will negotiate a final budget for the 2001-02 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

    It is difficult to compare the House and Senate budgets because the two sides used different accounting methods to come up with their totals. But at this point, it appears that the Senate would spend about $235-million more than the House. The two sides also differ in key areas. The House is pushing some $300-million in tax cuts, compared with no tax cuts in the Senate. The House also has deeper cuts in social service and health care programs than the Senate. The two sides also differ on whether university students should pay more tuition. The House is proposing a 5 percent tuition increase for all universities and would allow each university to increase tuition by another 2.5 percent. The Senate has no tuition increase in its budget.

    House lawmakers also said they will consider a Senate proposal to dip into environmental land-buying money to help pay for other needs.

    The governor has the power to veto items in the budget submitted to him by the Legislature.

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