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Governor puts a soft spin on $1-billion budget cuts

Bush terms it slowing budget growth, but critics say it's going to hurt no matter what it's called.

By STEVE BOUSQUET

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 3, 2001


Bush terms it slowing budget growth, but critics say it's going to hurt no matter what it's called.

TALLAHASSEE -- Amid growing uneasiness among lawmakers about the size of the state budget shortfall and how to deal with it, Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday tried to shape the way the public views the painful decisions that loom ahead.

Harsh-sounding talk of budget "cuts" is out. Instead, Bush spoke of slowing the rate of growth in spending.

It was a seemingly minor point. But it was a sign that Bush, who is still committed to limited government, will seek to define Florida's worst budget crisis in a decade on his terms.

"We have a $51-billion budget -- a budget which, by the way, will grow this fiscal year, not be cut, but will grow less than what we anticipated," Bush said at a news conference on a technology program. Referring to state capital reporters, Bush added: "I'm sure that people have that process in their heads."

Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, who often serves as a foil to break the tension at such moments, noted that the press seemed to ignore the point. "Nobody's writing, sir," Brogan said.

'I know,' Bush said.

Already, Bush and some key Republicans are talking of abandoning the latest installment of the intangibles tax cut, a signature element of the Bush agenda. Keeping the tax in place for one more year would save $120-million, allowing some programs to escape the chopping block

Some lawmakers have floated the idea of protecting key parts of the budget from cuts, such as education and human services. Bush himself has said those programs should be "at the very back of the line" when it comes time to cut.

On Tuesday, Bush sought to describe the budget shortfall in softer terms, defining cuts as cuts in growth rather than cuts in essential services.

"No one is looking forward to cutting the growth in our state budget," he said. "I think we need to be sensitive to people who are already receiving services, particularly vulnerable people, who have very few other options."

Democrats had another word for it.

"It sounds to me like he's trying to slice the baloney a little too thinly here," said Bob Poe, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "People are being born. People are moving into the state. Maybe he's not taking that into account."

Bush's critics argued that of course the budget grows each year, as does the state's surging population and the needs of an increasingly-urbanized state (Florida's population grew by 23.5 percent since the 1990 census and by 871,000 people since Bush took office, according to the University of Florida).

Brogan later sought to clarify Bush's comments, saying the year-to-year increases in state spending are often lost in the budget babble. "There's not enough balanced information going out to Floridians that the budget has grown," Brogan said.

"You can put any kind of spin you want on it. There's still going to be a lot of pain," said Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, the House minority leader and a candidate for governor.

Some Republicans take issue with Bush's logic. Sen. Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor calls the distinction between budget cuts and cuts in the rate of spending growth "semantics." He said: "What hurts is going to hurt, no matter how you say it."

Latvala also said he will not vote for spending cuts unless Bush drops plans for a third consecutive year of cuts in the intangibles tax on stocks and bonds.

"I personally have made the commitment that I am not voting for substantial reductions in the budget unless we do away with the latest intangibles tax cut. That has to be part of the equation," Latvala said.

Bush has said that while he personally favors the $120-million tax cut, "everything is on the table" as state leaders figure out how to cut up to $1-billion in spending.

At a meeting of Pinellas County legislators Tuesday, Latvala said the preliminary estimates of the size of the shortfall are so high that it seems impossible to spare public schools from the pain.

Latvala said the state's "meager" increase in real per-pupil spending in the new budget, coupled with a higher number of new students than districts had projected, had put bottom-line pressures on some districts even before the terrorist attacks.

"Is a 5 to 7 percent cut going to hurt in public education? Absolutely," Latvala said. "The numbers I've heard are going to be very painful."

- Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Stephanie Scruggs contributed to this report.

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