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Crist's budget plan might not cut deep enough

By MARC CAPUTO

Herald Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — With the state’s economy crashing around him, Gov. Charlie Crist is expected today to roll out a new Florida budget designed to get businesses back on their feet while avoiding big cuts to health care and education.

Though the details of the budget have not been released, the numbers might not add up in the end, according to legislators. That’s because Crist is expected to base his budget on tax-collection estimates that will likely be out of date by mid-March as the economy continues to slide.

Also, Crist has repeatedly said that he plans to plug the budget with a “substantial” amount of money from the federal stimulus package that he estimates is worth $12.2 billion for Florida. Yet legislative analysts say only $3.4 billion will probably be available for the next budget year, smaller than the projected budget deficit.

Legislators aren’t even sure how much of the $3.4 billion will be readily available due to complicated accounting requirements spelled out in the massive stimulus legislation.

“We’re in a quandary,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican. “If the governor’s budget includes stimulus money, is he then Santa Claus and we’re the Grinch if we don’t include stimulus money? We want to make sure to roll out a realistic, practical budget.”

Detert’s worry — that Crist is positioning himself to look like the good guy at the Legislature’s expense — is widespread among Republicans in both the House and Senate. The friction increased after Crist vetoed a proposed cut to the Everglades Forever land-buying program in the special January lawmaking session to reduce the budget. Lawmakers had thought he supported the cut.

Before the special session, Crist recommended legislators borrow heavily, avoid big budget cuts and approve a gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that could now net the state about $288 million. Legislators balked at the plan.

Now, Crist is again expected to ask legislators to approve the gambling deal as the state faces worsening budget news.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, of Lake Wales, said the gambling agreement might be one of the only revenue sources the Legislature approves because Crist has all but ruled out any tax increases, whether it’s raising cigarette taxes or eliminating some sales-tax exemptions.

“The governor said no taxes. And I take him at his word,” said Alexander, who protested loudly when Crist rejected the Florida Forever cut.

Alexander estimates that the state’s budget deficit for next year could grow to at least $5 billion — about $2 billion more than the current estimate. State economists will issue a new tax-collection forecast by mid-March. Their current estimate, issued in November, is already off by $214 million, economists have said.

Alexander said he’d like to make Crist submit a do-over budget if his numbers are way off. Senate President Jeff Atwater overruled the idea, saying he’s going to keep an open mind while being careful with Crist’s budget.

“We’re going to accept it. And we’re going to question it,” Atwater said.

Another potential snag between Crist and the Legislature: Crist classifies the federal stimulus money differently than lawmakers.

Lawmakers see the cash as a one-time deal and are likely to count it that way in their budget proposals. But Crist calls it “three-year money” since the stimulus package is spread over three years.

Legislators are likely to resist any increase in programs that need to be funded year after year, such as Medicaid. The federal stimulus package gives the state about $5 billion more for Medicaid.

Crist, however, has repeatedly suggested he might plow more money into the healthcare program serving poor, elderly and young Floridians. He said there’s only so much more to cut in a state where the budget, now worth $65.4 billion, is $8.4 billion smaller than it was two years ago.

— Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

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