State Politics

Final week for budget: pleas, deals, secrecy

TALLAHASSEE — Secret budget talks continued unabated Thursday as Florida lawmakers floated ideas that have not been discussed publicly, including a tax on a Miami-based tobacco company and deeper cuts to higher education.

University presidents pleaded with Gov. Charlie Crist to give them more money. An influential police union warned against wiping out hundreds of corrections probation supervisor jobs. And another day came and went without House and Senate negotiators meeting in public to air their differences in a proposed $66 billion budget.

That made people in the Capitol nervous Thursday, 48 hours beyond the time when Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander said the Legislature would be in “crisis’’ without a framework on a deal for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

“The clock is not our friend,” said Alexander, R-Lake Wales, even as he held out hope for an on-time finish May 1, a week from today.

Florida’s budget woes aren’t going unnoticed outside the state, either. Moody’s Investor Services placed the state’s top level bond rating on a downgrade watch list, citing dwindling budget reserves and increasing reliance on one-time money for recurring costs.

The lead House budget negotiation cited the Moody’s report to bolster his case that the House is right in demanding much larger cash reserves through 2011 to cushion the loss of stimulus money.

“Each chamber should attempt to embrace the necessary parts of the other’s approach,” said Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, the likely House Speaker in 2010. “We have fewer revenues. They have fewer cuts.”

Higher education spending remains a major area of conflict between the House and Senate, with $380 million separating them on universities alone. The House would cut some $260 million from the 11 institutions, while the Senate would add $120 million. Alexander called the House cuts potentially “devastating’’ and “destructive’’ to the mission of universities.

Both sides’ education budgets rely heavily on federal stimulus money, which university leaders aren’t willing to include because they say they cannot fund permanent programs and tenured faculty jobs on money that runs out after three years.

In a rare joint visit to the Capitol, 10 of the 11 state university presidents (FAU’s Frank Brogan was at a funeral) stressed the real-life implications of the proposed cuts to their institutions, and used words like “Armageddon,” “devastating’’ and “crippling.”

“This is not just another budget cycle we emerge from,” said Florida International University President Modesto “Mitch’’ Maidique. “If some of the worst scenarios come to pass, this is Armageddon for the state university system.”

He said the proposed general revenue cuts in the House are the equivalent of eliminating more than all state funding for the University of Florida, the state’s flagship institution.

Miami Dade College President Eduardo J. Padrón echoed the sentiment, saying the hardest hit will be students and those now unemployed seeking retraining at community colleges like his.

“This could be a disaster,” said Padrón, speaking in Miami. “We hope that reason will prevail and the funds will come through. But it doesn’t look good. We’re praying.”

Padrón said he faces $6 million to $8 million in additional cuts on top of recent 15 percent cuts. “We’ll have to eliminate programs, lay off people. It’s very grave for us.”

Crist, who met briefly in private with five presidents, refused to join in the gloom and doom predictions.

“I think at the end of the day it will all work out,” Crist said.

In the Senate, Alexander also broke the silence Thursday among GOP legislators when he said former House Speaker Ray Sansom’s legal troubles and the abrupt ascension of Rep. Larry Cretul to speaker added friction to the flow of legislation in the session. As a result, he said, preliminary budget negotiations started much later than usual.

“The whole process has been complicated by the change in leadership in the House,” Alexander said.

A grand jury indicted Sansom last Friday on a misconduct charge stemming from his role in steering pubic money to a state college that gave him a job. The focus of the criminal charge was taxpayer money Sansom quietly arranged for an airport building that the grand jury concluded was to be used by a major GOP donor’s jet business.

Despite the grand jury report, which sharply criticized the secrecy surrounding last-minute budget agreements, lawmakers continued to confer out of public sight. Their clandestine trading of offers and counteroffers underscored the secrecy of the 2009 budget process.

House budget negotiator Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, offered to accept a cigarette tax pushed by the Senate on the condition that it also include a new fee on cigarette companies that were not part of a landmark tobacco lawsuit. The largest such company is Miami-based Dosal Corp., whose opposition to a new fee is shared by many Miami-Dade legislators.

In response, Dosal announced it would close its plant Friday and bus all of its employees and family members to Tallahassee to protest.