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2 sides near deal on budget

The House and Senate tentatively agree to slightly more than $1-billion in cuts for the rest of the fiscal year.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 1, 2001

The House and Senate tentatively agree to slightly more than $1-billion in cuts for the rest of the fiscal year.

TALLAHASSEE -- A recession made worse by a post-September slide in tourism forced the Legislature on Friday to tentatively agree on the deepest spending cuts in a decade, with $639-million in education cuts. Not since 1991 have lawmakers cut so much in mid year. The cuts, to be completed this weekend in talks between senators and House members, will mean less money for classrooms, colleges, job training, juvenile crime prevention, antitobacco messages and libraries.

The worst may be ahead. Hundreds of new programs budgeted last spring but not yet under way were eliminated, such as a new court for Pinellas drug offenders. Many other services, such as eyeglasses and hearing aids for poor adults on Medicaid, are safe only through next June, the end of this fiscal year.

As lawmakers head into an election year, they are gambling that an improving economy will boost tax collections and allow those programs to continue.

Raising taxes appears unlikely in a conservative, pro-business Legislature, which is why Senate President John McKay is trying to persuade a reluctant business lobby to support reform of the tax structure instead.

Florida's heavy reliance on the 6 percent sales tax -- about a third of which is paid by visitors -- makes the state highly vulnerable to any drop in tourism.

On the fourth day of its special session, the Senate on Friday passed $1-billion in cuts, including a 2.3 percent cut in state aid to school districts. The vote was 26-12.

But rather than accept the Senate's plan as is, House members called for conference committees to iron out the differences.

Those committees met late into the night, with agency heads grimly watching from the back of the committee rooms.

"No one wants to cut education. No one wants to cut social services. That leaves criminal justice," said Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Bill Bankhead.

"That leaves us."

Democrats, trying out a campaign theme, predicted the cuts will mean more crowded classrooms and more demoralized teachers, but Republicans cited the war, recession and similar pressures in other states as proof that Florida is not alone.

"The system goes on," said Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole. "Criminals are still going to be in jail. You ought to be ashamed if you apologize for what we did, because we did a good job under difficult circumstances."

Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, said Republicans seemed "desensitized" to the real-life impact of cutting services.

"I believe in my heart that we will be hurting people. Real people," she said. "These cuts affect real people. We are affecting more people than is truly necessary."

A dozen Senate Democrats, including Les Miller of Tampa, refused to vote for the budget, and their leader, Sen. Tom Rossin, made several failed attempts to eliminate tax breaks.

Rossin, D-Royal Palm Beach, suggested ending state subsidies to Florida's pro sports teams, a golf Hall of Fame and the International Game Fish Association, and he faulted Gov. Jeb Bush for looking at only one side of the state "balance sheet" by favoring cuts rather than looking at ways to save money.

"This is an emergency. This is a time when we need leadership in government. These are the kinds of things that he should be looking at," Rossin said.

McKay took the unusual step of criticizing Rossin's amendment from the rostrum, saying that a comprehensive review of all tax breaks is favorable to a "haphazard review" of tax breaks for stadiums.

The Senate vote cleared the way for both chambers to talk over their differences.

That in itself was major progress. A first special session ended in rancor a month ago when House Speaker Tom Feeney would not agree with the Senate, which insisted on delaying the next installment of a cut in a tax on investment portfolios to save about $130-million.

In another step forward, both sides agreed on cuts of slightly more than $1-billion in the seven months left in this fiscal year. That includes $639-million in education at all levels, $155-million in criminal justice and $147-million in health and human services. The immediate cuts are about $300-million less because of shifts in spending that soften the impact.

No one seemed happier or more relieved by the peaceful start to budget talks than Bush.

"I'm very pleased how everybody seems to be cooperating," he said, sipping a Diet Dr Pepper as he patrolled the Senate corridors hobnobbing with fellow Republicans.

Bush's willingness to delay a tax cut allowed wavering House Republicans to join the so-called "prefer to defer" bandwagon.

The most closely watched vote of this special session will come next week, when the House votes on the intangibles tax cut. Bush says with certainty he has the 61 GOP votes he needs for deferral.

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