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Senate okays $47.8-billion budget plan

The package includes millions for pork barrel projects, or turkeys.

By DIANE RADO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2001


The package includes millions for pork barrel projects, or turkeys.

TALLAHASSEE -- The state Senate gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a $47.8-billion budget that offers more money for public schools, more financial aid for needy students and extra dollars for nursing home care, abused and neglected children and homeless people.

But it isn't perfect.

Despite an overall increase in the budget for Medicaid programs, the fine print of the Senate's 2001-02 plan includes $643-million in cuts in specific health care and social service programs, a priority of Senate President John McKay.

Included in the cuts is a provision that makes an estimated 1,828 poor, elderly and disabled people ineligible for broad benefits under the Medicaid program. Those people would still receive pharmacy benefits.

At the same time, senators added to the budget millions of dollars in "member projects" -- often called pork-barrel projects or turkeys -- to impress the folks back home.

There's $1.4-million for an International Softball Federation Stadium in Plant City; $250,000 for a Florida Sports Hall of Fame and museum of Florida sports history; and $1.7-million for an Escambia County Commerce Park, among other projects.

"I'm not sure member projects are the No. 1 priority of the state," Gov. Jeb Bush said Thursday, when asked about the projects in the Senate's budget.

Bush is at odds with the Senate on at least two major issues.

He proposed some $300-million in tax cuts for next budget year. The Senate did not include any tax cuts in its budget, saying money was too tight to spend on tax breaks.

The Senate also decided to dip into Preservation 2000 funds -- money set aside to buy environmentally sensitive land -- to help free money for public schools and health care programs. Bush is adamantly opposed to using the Preservation 2000 money that way.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Horne said the Senate did the best it could in light of unprecedented challenges. The most serious problem was a nearly $1-billion shortfall in Medicaid, the result of deficits in prior years and an unexpected increase in clients for next year.

It was a "Medicaid hurdle of enormous proportions," Horne said, that caused senators to closely examine and cut a variety of state programs in order to be able to cover all the Medicaid clients and other priorities.

"The final result, though, is a budget that you can be proud of," Horne told his colleagues.

The Senate budget includes:

An increase of 4.6 percent in funding per student in public schools, and $231-million to fund an increase of 52,327 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

An increase of $17-million for Florida's grant program for needy college students. The program is also expanded so that part-time students, as well as full-time students, can be eligible for need-based aid. In addition, there is no university tuition increase in the budget.

$16.4-billion for health and human services programs, enough to cover the Medicaid shortfall, as well as the increasing cost of prescription drugs and medical care.

The state House is scheduled to consider its version of a state budget today. After that, the two sides will negotiate a final budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The governor has the power to veto items in the final budget.

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