TALLAHASSEE -- As the Senate and House adopted austere budgets marked by deep cuts in health care and schools Thursday, transplant surgery survivor Mary Ellen Ross had an urgent plea for lawmakers.
“Don’t make these cuts,” Ross said. “I don’t want to die.”
Ross, 58, of Delray Beach, was referring to one of the most controversial parts of the Senate budget: a $230 million cut in the Medically Needy program that for a decade has helped pay for costly drugs that prevent her body from rejecting a replacement kidney.
The founder of the Florida Transplant Survivors Coalition said the loss of prescription drug subsidies in the Senate budget will force transplant and cancer patients to turn to hospital emergency rooms for help, driving up the cost of medical care for everyone else.
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The House budget saves the program, one of many differences in the plans that must be resolved. The proposed House budget is $66.5 billion, while the Senate budget is $70.1 billion.
Public school spending would drop by more than $1 billion, to the lowest level in five years. And for the first time, public employees will be required to pay toward their pension plans.
Neither includes cuts to the corporate income tax and property tax that have been proposed by Gov. Rick Scott.
“The first priority is to produce a budget that doesn’t raise taxes or fees,” said House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. The tax cuts Scott has proposed “will be incredibly difficult,” he said.
Passage of budgets is a prelude to weeks of intense negotiations on a compromise spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The House vote was along party lines, 78-39. More Democrats crossed over in the Senate, where the vote was 33-6 .
The backdrop of the debate is increasingly tense. Hundreds of union and public hospital workers roamed the halls of the Capitol protesting budget cuts, pension plan changes and the elimination of thousands of state jobs.
Singing the folk anthem This Land is Your Land in the rotunda, they waved placards and dropped off petitions at Gov. Scott’s office calling him “Pink Slip Rick.”
Republicans who control the Legislature said the cuts are painful but unavoidable because of the poor economy, loss of federal economic stimulus money and an unwillingness to raise taxes when more than a million Floridians are out of work.
“We solved our shortfall without burdening Floridians with additional taxation,” said Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Lake Placid, who oversaw the crafting of the House plan.
“We walked through the valley of tears,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice. “One million other people don’t have a job and there’s nobody left to tax. There’s no way you can continue to cut billions of dollars out of a budget and never touch a living human being, or anything they care about.”
Democrats opposed both budgets. They protested the pension-plan change as balancing the budget on the backs of poor and middle-class people. They said other measures should be considered, such as closing sales tax loopholes that often benefit businesses.
“It’s an income tax on public employees,” Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, said of a House requirement that public workers, including teachers, police officers and firefighters, pay 3 percent of their pay to pensions.
The Senate approach to pensions would require workers to pay different portions of their salary into the Florida Retirement System. Most state workers who make $40,000 or less would pay $900 a year or less, while those who make $25,000 or less would pay less than $500.
An amendment by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, creates a tiered pension contribution system: 2 percent of the first $25,000 of a person’s salary, 4 percent of any salary amount between $25,000 and $50,000, and 6 percent of salary above that amount.
Both budgets slash spending on pre-kindergarten programs, public schools, colleges and universities. Both also cut state support to prosecutors, public defenders and courts.
The two budgets’ bottom lines are nearly $4 billion apart because of philosophical differences in the two chambers. The Senate’s $70.1 billion budget includes all state employee healthcare contributions, a $2 billion spending item, as well as the budgets of five water management districts and three local expressway authorities.
The Senate also budgets for all 67 county court clerks, a $543 million item that’s not in the House budget. The Senate backed off a plan to privatize a Northeast Florida mental hospital and probation services in the south.
Both budgets execute deep cuts to social services, specifically hospitals. The Senate would cut reimbursement rates to hospitals that total about $1.8 billion; the House cuts those rates by about $540 million.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who crafted the Senate health care budget, said the cuts were necessary to stabilize the Medicaid program, which should account for $22 billion in next year’s budget, one-third of the total.
Negron said 42 percent of the Medically Needy program remains intact in the Senate budget and will be reduced in April 2012, and that local and federal programs will help subsidize the costs of prescription drugs.
Not so, transplant survivor Ross said.
“My life would be shut down more quickly if this program is not here as something I can rely on until the day God wants to take me -- not the state of Florida,” Ross said.