State Politics

Get ready for more taxes, less service

TALLAHASSEE — Late and exhausted, Florida legislators finally reached consensus Monday on how to balance the proposed $65 billion state budget that touches every life in the nation’s fourth most-populous state.

Lawmakers are raising an historic amount of taxes, fees, licenses and rates — about $2 billion worth — on smokers, property owners, drivers, park-goers, sportsmen, university students and customers of state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

“It’s reasonable and responsible for the times that we are in,” said Miami Republican Rep. Marcelo Llorente, a House budget chief.

“We had a $6 billion deficit piled on to $8 billion in cuts over the last two years,” he said. “So we tried to make the responsible decisions, understanding what families are going through in the state.”

Still, up to 800 state workers could lose their jobs due to budget cuts, though the budget also creates more than 10,000 new jobs. Workers earning more than $45,000 yearly will have their pay cut by 2 percent.

Legislators cut their own pay 7 percent Monday, but they won’t eliminate free health-insurance premiums for themselves and thousands of top state workers.

Pumped with $5 billion in federal stimulus cash, the budget provides a small boost in per-student spending for K-12 schools and trims Medicaid reimbursements to doctors and hospitals. Lawmakers also scaled back the value of the Bright Futures Scholarship program, one of the state’s biggest middle-class entitlements.

After marathon weekend talks, House and Senate budget negotiators Monday cleared a final hurdle by deciding to bank half of $246 million in surplus Medicaid money for hospital charity care. The other half will be distributed to hospitals this budget year, which ends June 30.

Despite the agreement, Democrats and some Republican lawmakers complained that legislative leaders pulled a “bait and switch’’ by indirectly diverting federal stimulus money from Medicaid to shore up other parts of the deficit-ridden budget.

The budget, printed Monday night, will be available for its first floor vote by Thursday night. The legislative session had been scheduled to end Friday, but lawmakers couldn’t agree on taxes, budget cuts, savings and gambling expansion.

Negotiations still aren’t over. Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander will begin negotiating with House lawmakers on 32 pieces of still-unresolved legislation tied to the budget. Among them:

n A gambling expansion agreement. It could generate $300 to $500 million from gamblers.

n Tobacco money. The Senate wants to raise taxes on cigarettes by up to $1 a pack. The House has pushed to cap the amount of money that Big Tobacco has to set aside in appellate cases in lawsuits from smokers.

n Court fees. The House and Senate differ over how to raise new revenues to keep the court system operational.

n Transparency in spending and contracting. Alexander is pushing two measures to put more budget information online and to limit contracts that, he says, can become “blank checks’’ for big vendors.

This was the lawmaking session where “transparency’’ in the budget process was the subject of unique scrutiny. Lawmakers grappled with a huge deficit along with a grand jury indictment of ex-House Speaker Ray Sansom for allegedly abusing the budget process.

Amid the troubles, legislators had muted interest in passing bills. They approved only 238 bills — 44 percent fewer, on average, than in any other session in the previous decade.

Four pieces of legislation passed this year could give voters a voice on taxes and spending by 2010. The measures ask voters whether they want to: eliminate financing of politicians’ campaigns, pay for fire-rescue services by eliminating a portion of property taxes in exchange for increasing the sales tax, increase local property taxes for schools, and give property-tax incentives to first-time home buyers and non-homesteaded properties.

The House’s Democratic leader, Rep. Ron Saunders, of Key West, said he supported giving voters more of a say in the process. And he bashed his own chamber while praising Sen. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, for holding firm to a limited budget.

“The Senate acted more responsibly than the House did,” Saunders said.