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Budget cuts called a 'short-term fix'

The school budget loses less than 1 percent, but other programs, including a well known anti-tobacco program, don't fare as well.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY and ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2001


The school budget loses less than 1 percent, but other programs, including a well known anti-tobacco program, don't fare as well.

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's students, citrus growers, highway patrol troopers and senior citizens all will feel the pain of nearly $800-million in budget cuts approved by lawmakers Tuesday.

The cuts didn't go as far as some legislators wanted. They warned that the state's revenue picture promises deeper cuts in the near future.

"This is a short-term fix," said Rep. Ken Sorensen, R-Tavernier. "Schools are not closing. Criminals are not out on the street. It's belt tightening."

Nevertheless, the "belt tightening" is sure to be felt across the state, mostly by the state's most vulnerable.

"What does it say about our family values when we protect millionaires . . . but then turn our backs on our elderly brothers and sisters?" said House Democratic leader Lois Frankel.

The budget appears to grant Gov. Jeb Bush his wish of sparing Florida's classrooms. On average, Florida school districts will have to take a little less than 1 percent out of their budgets. Still, that 0.9 percent amounts to a hit of $137-million, with about $20-million coming from Tampa Bay area school districts.

The cuts would have been easier to manage if lawmakers had passed bills designed to give districts flexibility in making the cuts. For instance, some districts might want to take money earmarked for computers and use it to hire teachers. Both the House and Senate prepared flexibility bills, but failed to pass them.

"We could live with this a lot better if we had flexibility to use summer school money and technology money," said John Long, superintendent of the Pasco County schools, which already have implemented a hiring freeze to save $1-million. "If we can't move money around, 90 percent of our money is tied up in personnel. What else am I going to cut?"

School districts already have taken steps to pare their budgets by freezing hiring and travel and by having administrators fill in in the classroom.

But some, such as Hernando County, already were suffering fiscal problems. Hernando began the last school year asking departments to cut their budgets by 10 percent.

In Hillsborough County, principals were asked to chop their budgets by 2 percent and district administrators by 5 percent to come up with money for additional expenses and teacher raises. Hundreds of teacher aide positions were eliminated. A hiring freeze was also implemented for all positions, except teachers and bus drivers. All that happened before the economy worsened after Sept. 11.

The state's community colleges will have to absorb a $23.5-million cut. The universities have to contend with a cut of $83-million.

Also as a result of the cuts:

Florida's nationally known anti-tobacco program will take a $14.5-million hit. The biggest cut was in the local partnerships and training, the aspects of the program that most involve teens targeted by the program. The program budget started at $70-million in 1998 and had shrunk to $37-million before the impending cuts.

"Those are the things that take so long to build up," said Susan Glickman with the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. "This is so short-sighted, cutting a program that saves money for the state."

Florida's popular Bright Futures college scholarship program will be trimmed by $14.9-million. Students will be prohibited from using the scholarship during the summer session. The program, which costs $200-million, pays tuition and fees for students who earn a B average in high school. Lawmakers are looking for ways to rein in costs of the program.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers who have been waiting for laptop computers to be installed in their cruisers will have to wait a while longer. The installation of the computers, which already has been delayed by bidding controversies, was lost in a $5-million cut to the Highway Patrol budget.

The state's program for compensating citrus growers whose trees are destroyed in efforts to eradicate citrus canker is effectively being eliminated with a $27.2-million cut.

Many Florida senior citizens will feel the pinch of cuts. The state will cap the enrollment in a prescription assistance program for the elderly, for a savings of $22.5-million. And a pilot program to divert elderly people from nursing homes to community-based care will lose $1.8-million.

"The state needs alternatives to nursing homes; this saves the state in the long run," said Lyn Bodiford of the AARP.

"The frightening thing is, this is the tip of the iceberg," Bodiford said.

-- Times staff writers Melanie Ave, Barbara Behrendt, Kent Fischer, Robert King and Kelly Ryan Gilmer contributed to this report.

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