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Grumbling greets $50-billion budget

Lawmakers trumpet tax cuts in a plan that irks some observers.

By TIM NICKENS and DIANE RADO

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001


Lawmakers trumpet tax cuts in a plan that irks some observers.

TALLAHASSEE -- Floridians would see modest tax cuts, small increases in education spending and new voting machines under a $50-billion state budget agreement announced by legislative leaders Monday.

Republican lawmakers said the spending plan, which the full Legislature is expected to approve later this week, meets their priorities in a tight budget year even if it leaves educators, social services advocates and environmentalists dissatisfied.

"It's smaller government, it's less taxes, it's the way we campaigned," House Speaker Tom Feeney said. "We get ridiculed for it, but, by golly, I'm proud of it."

Added Senate President John McKay: "I haven't heard any complaints."

The spending plan for the budget year beginning July 1 is expected to be available to the public today on the Internet (www.leg.state.fl.us/). A constitutional amendment requires a 72-hour cooling-off period before legislators take a final vote. The Legislature's annual 60-day session is scheduled to end Friday.

At a time of slowing tax revenues and soaring Medicaid costs, the 2001-02 budget offers something for everyone and satisfies virtually no one.

There will be $175-million in tax cuts through a brief tax-free holiday for back-to-school shoppers, and a reduction in the intangibles tax on stocks, bonds and other investments. But the total tax cut is just half of what Feeney and other House Republicans initially sought and a fraction of the $1.6-billion in cuts approved in the first two years of Gov. Jeb Bush's administration.

The dates of the tax-free holiday and the details of the intangibles tax cut will be worked out this week.

Public school spending will rise by 4 percent per student, but educators say the increase will barely cover the cost of new students and inflation, and will leave little for teacher pay raises. University officials also are dissatisfied, and so are college students who will see a 7.5 percent tuition increase at universities and 3.5 percent increase at community colleges.

"Universities always cry foul at this time of year," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Horne, R-Orange Park.

Social service advocates were relieved to see some of the most high-profile proposed cuts in Medicaid, such as a proposal to stop paying for eyeglasses and hearing aids for poor people, have been averted. But they said other efforts to save money could affect the quality of health care available to the poor.

Those changes include efforts to steer poor people into less expensive health plans, eliminating counseling to poor people faced with choosing a health plan and reducing the use of brand-name drugs. Another change would force the state to competitively bid for such services as transportation for patients and equipment such as wheelchairs.

"On the whole, we haven't moved forward anywhere. All they did was restore (proposed) cuts," said Karen Woodall, who represents the National Association of Social Workers.

Environmentalists also are concerned that the budget calls for transferring $75-million from the Preservation 2000 land-buying program to the Everglades restoration project. That freed up general tax dollars that were diverted from the Everglades project to education and social services.

The state Senate, which proposed the idea, moved to assure state environmental officials and groups that the money taken from Preservation 2000 this year will be put back next year. The Senate approved a provision pushed by Sens. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, and Burt Saunders, R-Naples, that would restore the money in the 2002-2003 budget.

The budget also includes $4.5-million for a study commission or authority that will recommend how to proceed with a high-speed bullet train approved by voters; $23-million to replace punch card voting machines that were at the forefront of the presidential election recount controversy; and $1.3-million for recreational facilities at Rodman Dam, which Bush wants to tear down.

In education, there will be $152-million to recruit and retain teaches at a time when Florida faces a massive teacher shortage. The state House also agreed with Senate proposals to spend $36-million on teacher training and $62-million on technology for public schools, said Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Largo, chairman of the Senate's education budget committee. The budget also increases financial aid for needy students.

In all, public education fared well in a year that lawmakers were grappling with a nearly $1-billion shortfall in the state's Medicaid program, senators said.

Overall, the public schools budget increased by 6.2-percent, counting all state and local dollars.

"That ain't bad," Sullivan said. "That ain't chicken feed."

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