BY MARY ELLEN KLAS, MARC CAPUTO AND JENNIFER LIBERTO
Herald Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers began a grim budget-cutting session Monday with more bad news: the state’s deficit is likely $100 million bigger than expected and Florida leads the nation in food stamp requests.
Senate President Jeff Atwater opened the two-week budget cutting session with a list of “sobering statistics” that show Florida with a record number of home foreclosures, food stamp recipients and job losses that are placing more demands on state services, sending the budget deeper into the red.
“The gravity of the current fiscal situation is clear,” Atwater, a North Palm Beach Republican, told the Senate. “We are simply spending money we do not have.”
Among the new expenses is the 49 percent surge in food stamp recipients over the past 18 months. A whopping 50,000 new enrollees in December pushed Florida’s total caseload to 1.7 million, said Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon.
What’s worse, he said, are the demographics of the people applying: Newcomers to entitlement programs, “not people who are used to applying.”
Food stamps increased by 31 percent in Dade and 43 percent in Broward counties, although Monroe County saw a 80 percent increase.
The soaring use of food stamps indicates a growing demand in state services that have exacerbated the state’s $2.3 billion budget hole, which is likely to rise to $2.4 billion because of the $100 million drop-off in tax revenues in November.
If the trend continues, Atwater said, “you’re talking another $600 million to $700 million in missed revenue.” That means the budget hole could be $3 billion by year’s end.
House Speaker Ray Sansom told members they had a “difficult task ahead of all of us, tough choices to make.”
The first budget-cut drafts released Monday show legislators are prepared to cut nearly $1 billion in spending and raid unspent money in trust fund accounts for the rest. By contrast, Gov. Charlie Crist has proposed cutting $566 million in spending, using money from trust funds such as the Lawton Chiles tobacco fund and finalizing the gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe.
The difference: Crist’s plan would protect more health care programs while the House and Senate have proposed big rate cuts to health care providers to save $276 million in health and human services programs.
Among the proposed legislative cuts: A $73.4 million cut to nursing homes, $50 million cut to hospitals, a $4.5 million cut to Medicaid HMOS and a $6 million cut to developmental-disability service providers.
Lobbying groups for providers predicted major troubles if the cuts become reality.
Advocates said some nursing homes and homes for the developmentally disabled will have to shut down. And Medicaid HMOs, after shouldering back-to-back cuts, might pull out of counties such as Broward.
Democratic Sen. Nan Rich of Weston said virtually every type of social service could get gutted — from transition homes for foster children to drug-treatment programs. Rich said the Legislature is precariously close to making Florida a place with little quality of life.
“This isn’t a sky-is-falling prediction,” Rich said. “There are people who could be put out on the street or lose their jobs or lose their health care and for what? We have to ask ourselves what kind of a state do we want people to live in?”
Drivers and speeders could get hit as well. To shield courts, prosecutors and public defenders from more cuts, lawmakers will hike traffic fines and fees to generate $63-million more a year. Some speeding tickets would jump by $25 each. Many traffic tickets would rise $10 each. The state would revoke an 18-percent discount on fines for motorists who go to driving school, and judges no longer could waive fines in cases in which adjudication is withheld.
“This is a preamble to what is to come in the regular session,” said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. The regular legislative session that begins in March is likely to include another round of trims, perhaps as large as $4 billion, to balance the coming year’s spending plan.
Off the table: consideration of any cigarette or alcohol tax, finalizing the gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe, and closing tax loopholes.
“It’s a huge mistake,” said Rep. Jim Waldman, a Coconut Creek Democrat. “They’re not putting all the options on the table.”
Lawmakers and Crist have been expecting the budget cuts since the downturn in the economy six months ago, when they asked state agencies to hold back four percent of their budget. When the budget gap widened, lawmakers called the two-week special session to decide which cuts will be permanent, which will deepen, and which areas will be shielded.
Among the cuts legislators plan to implement between now and June 30:
n Schools will face a $492 million cut, including reducing Miami-Dade’s cost of living adjustments by $450,000 under the House plan and $1.9 million in the Senate plan.
n Pre-kindergarten teachers could be laid off as classrooms are consolidated for the remainder of the year to allow a maximum of 12 students per class instead of 10. Summer pre-kindergarten classes will be scaled back. The savings to the state: $4.8 million.
n Teachers who get extra training and achieve national certification will get an 8 percent salary bonus, instead of 10 percent. Savings to the state: $10 million.
n School districts will receive less money for school books, transportation and special education.
n Crist’s initiatives to provide subsidies to new companies and the $5 million program to provide incentives to the motion picture and television industry will end.
n The Florida prison system will lose as many as 594 jobs.
n And a proposed $9.8 million cut in child protection could also jeopardize as much as $41.5 million in matching federal funding next year, DCF officials said.
To offset potential job losses from the budget cuts, lawmakers are poised to set up a $8.5 million loan program to small businesses that create jobs. The maximum loan would be
— Herald/Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can
be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.