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    GOP unswayed on House budget

    Democratic pleas for funding increases fail in a plan that includes $355-million in tax cuts.

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- As a boy, being Jewish sometimes was difficult for state Rep. Kenneth Gottlieb, D-Hollywood.

    "When I was young, I was discriminated against because I was Jewish, and I didn't like it very much," he told a hushed state House chamber Friday. Today, he represents a legislative district that he says has more Holocaust survivors "than just about any place in the world."

    For Gottlieb, the separation of church and state is a sensitive issue, and he argued passionately Friday against a provision that would set the stage for Florida to greatly expand the number of government contracts given to "faith-based" organizations.

    Gottlieb, and other Democrats, didn't have the votes to sway Republicans who are in the majority in the state House. The provision remained in legislation relating to Florida's budget for 2001-2002.

    The chamber gave preliminary approval to a $53.3-billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The House has set aside $355-million for tax breaks, setting up a fight with the Senate, which did not include tax breaks in its version of the budget.

    This is a tight budget year, and Democrats mounted a spirited debate Friday on some of the most difficult and emotional issues facing Florida, from providing health care to poor people, improving nursing home care, supporting public schools and improving the state's elections equipment after the turmoil over the presidential election.

    Republicans in charge agreed to restore money for Medicaid programs for pregnant women and the elderly and disabled. They also insisted that the budget meets the basic needs of the state.

    But they kept a cut that would reduce Medicaid benefits for eyeglasses, dentures, hearing aides and other visual, hearing and dental services for poor adults. The $37-million cut affects at least 190,000 people, said state Rep. Arthenia L. Joyner, D-Tampa.

    "How can we as a state allow our most vulnerable to go without the most basic necessities, like seeing and hearing?" Joyner said.

    State Rep. Jerry Maygarden, R-Pensacola, who was chairman of the budget committee over health and human services programs, said the cut stems from difficult decisions that had to be made this year as lawmakers faced a nearly $1-billion shortfall in the Medicaid program. The shortfall stems from deficits in prior years and an unexpected increase in clients for next budget year.

    Overall, the Medicaid budget will increase next budget year because of all the clients and other factors, but there are still about $700-million in cuts in specific health and human services programs in the House budget. The Senate has fewer cuts, and the two sides will have to resolve the differences before a final budget is passed.

    Democrats also tried unsuccessfully to increase funding for higher teacher salaries, smaller class sizes in public schools and affordable prescription drugs for seniors. They argued that there would be plenty of money to pay for those programs if the House wasn't intent on giving out tax breaks.

    "Our seniors have made us what we are now. Our seniors have built our neighborhoods, our communities. Our seniors have built this great state of Florida and this great nation," said state Rep. Frank Peterman Jr., D-St. Petersburg. Majority Leader Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said the House budget does include more money for a program to assist seniors in getting prescription drugs.

    Overall, the House budget includes:

    A 3.4-percent increase in the funding program that pays for public schools.

    $24.8-million for teacher recruitment and retention programs, as Florida faces a massive teacher shortage.

    A university tuition increase of up to 7.5 percent: 5 percent across the board and 2.5 percent at the discretion of universities.

    $16.3-billion in health and human services programs.

    The House and Senate are expected to give final approval to their spending plans next week. After that, the two sides will negotiate a final budget for Florida.

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