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House's budget cuts exceed $1-billion

The House passes its scaled back version of cuts, which top $1-billion. Senators will vote next.

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 30, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida House of Representatives cut more than $1-billion from education, health care and public safety Thursday, inching closer to an agreement with the Senate on final cuts.

As drastic as they are, the cuts still are not as severe as the original House plan. Lawmakers restored $130-million in services originally targeted for cuts, including dental care for the poor and some health care for the elderly and disabled.

The House also restored jobs for probation officers and some community-based care for AIDS patients.

"We are not throwing people under the bus," Rep. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, said in response to Democrats' accusations that the GOP was ignoring the most vulnerable citizens.

Democrats wanted to raid the state's rainy day fund to replace cuts in education and social services, but Republicans refused to go along.

"It's not about saving money, colleagues, it's about saving children," said Rep. Sally Heyman, D-North Miami Beach.

House members voted 78-41 for the budget cuts, with nearly all Republicans voting for them and nearly all Democrats opposing them. Dunnellon Republican Nancy Argenziano, recently removed by House Speaker Tom Feeney from a key House budget panel, voted against the plan.

The Senate is scheduled to vote on its own plan this morning. The two chambers then will appoint conferees to iron out the differences.

"We're not that far apart," said Rep. Carlos Lacasa, chief budget architect for the House.

Unlike last month's special session, which disintegrated over a disagreement on a controversial tax cut, the House and Senate are expected to resolve matters peacefully this weekend, Feeney said.

A slowing economy and fallout from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks punched a $1.3-billion hole in the state's $48-billion budget.

The House plans to plug that hole cuts $692-million from education, including $113-million from the state university system and almost $550-million in elementary and secondary education.

School districts would be able to use local tax dollars normally reserved for buildings to help make up the difference, said Lynn, who handles the House's education spending. The Senate plan doesn't allow that.

Although House members restored some health care and social services for the poor and elderly, they still cut Medicare's Medically Needy program. That pays for health care for certain people who are sick and have exhausted their own benefits. Children and pregnant women still would be covered.

The House plan also cuts into the criminal justice area, but it protected probation officers from layoffs.

"We've got a solid budget that does not compromise public safety," said Rep. Randy Ball, the Mims Republican in charge of criminal justice spending.

But the state court system will have to get by with less, while drug treatment and education programs for prisoners were trimmed by about a third, Ball said.

House members debated cutting the $27-million set aside to compensate people who lose trees to the state's citrus canker eradication program, but in the end reduced it to about $23.5-million.

"Every day that this program is not in place the canker spreads," said Lacasa, whose Miami district has been hard hit by canker. The Senate plan eliminates the compensation.

In the Senate plan, more than half of the budget cuts -- nearly $600-million -- would come from public schools, colleges and universities.

The Senate also cancels Bright Futures scholarships for summer school next year, something the House does not do. Those lottery-funded scholarships are awarded to a third of the state's high school graduates, costing the state $202-million this year.

-- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.

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