Lawmakers agree to restore probation cuts
By ALISA ULFERTS and STEVE BOUSQUET
TALLAHASSEE -- Finley Gable keeps close tabs on sex offenders in his town.
A probation officer in New Port Richey, Gable checks to see they are staying away from children, taking their polygraph tests and following other court-ordered conditions to their release from prison.
So when lawmakers proposed eliminating hundreds of probation officers' jobs and increasing others' caseloads to help fill a $1.3-billion hole in the state budget, Gable predicted what sex offenders would do: "They will re-offend."
Lawmakers seemed to get the message Tuesday, the first day of a second special session called to fix the budget. Instead of cutting, they promised to restore the bulk of previous cuts in the number of probation officers.
As a reward, lawmakers heard cheers from Gable and hundreds of probation officers gathered at the Capitol to protest the cuts. They were dressed in identical, dark blue T-shirts and carried signs warning lawmakers that the cuts would harm public safety.
"We shouldn't cut as significantly as the . . . bill originally did," Gov. Jeb Bush said.
And in what may be the first of many necessary peace treaties this special session, House Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President John McKay agreed. A disagreement between the two men over an intangibles tax cut derailed the first special session last month. McKay wanted to repeal the tax cut; Feeney opposed even a delay. The two have since compromised on a bill delaying the cut for 18 months.
But restoring probation officers' jobs may be easier for Feeney than McKay.
Because the original House budget plan cut more deeply than the Senate plan, the House is in a position to restore some of its cuts and still meet the more than $1-billion in program cuts Feeney and McKay agreed to, said Feeney spokeswoman Kim Stone. Members are scheduled to make those changes Thursday.
But the original Senate plan cut just $800-million. In addition to cutting a couple of hundred million more dollars, senators are expected to restore the probation cuts using money trimmed from other programs, including education and drug treatment for inmates.
"The cuts we're going to make will not be easy, and there are consequences to each one that we will make," McKay told senators, as dozens of probation officers watched from the gallery above. "We will prioritize them so that we minimize the negative effects on both classrooms and health and human services as much as possible."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Rossin, D-Royal Palm Beach, called the new round of cuts "absolutely unnecessary" and repeated the Democrats' view that a menu of fee increases and improvements in efficiencies would balance the budget. Rossin said Democrats would push their alternative plan through a series of floor amendments -- something the minority party did not do in the first special session last month.
"There are a number of ways to balance the budget without taking the cuts to an education system that is already in dire straits," Rossin said.
He called for balancing the budget without harming the education system. Meanwhile, Bush is determined to keep this session from going off track. He paid separate afternoon house calls Tuesday on Feeney and McKay, who have put their personal and political differences aside to work for passage of a smaller budget.
"We have a deal. There's no reason to think it won't work out," Bush said.
During his meeting with Bush, McKay rattled off the Senate timetable, including conference committee meetings this weekend and a final vote Dec. 6. "We'll vote it out Thursday, and we'll be out of Dodge -- just the way it's supposed to be," McKay told Bush.
"Excellent," Bush replied.
Feeney, too, expects to have his conference committee members meet with their Senate counterparts by this weekend, to stay on schedule to end the 10-day special session Dec. 6.
- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire