State Politics

Budget work begins; more cuts planned

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers are piecing together a budget for next year that makes more cuts to programs and relies on billions more in federal stimulus money to stave off even deeper reductions.

The House on Friday unveiled its proposed $67.1 billion budget — about 1 percent higher than the current year — and the Senate will follow suit Monday.

The House plan slightly boosts public-school spending, drains a road-building fund, pulls the plug on the popular Florida Forever land-preservation program and calls for a 3 percent salary cut for most state workers. But lawmakers are keeping intact the free-health insurance premiums that they and 27,000 other state workers enjoy thanks to a $44 million subsidy from taxpayers.

The Senate, which has suggested it will end the free health premiums, calls for deeper cuts in health care spending on hospitals, nursing homes, mental-health counseling and homes for the developmentally disabled. It also eliminates funding for libraries, but boosts higher-education spending.

If this budget crunch has a human face, it may belong to Paul Clark, of Crawfordville, south of Tallahassee, who used vacation time to stand for hours in the Capitol corridors this week, pleading with lawmakers to restore money for public libraries. For days, Clark held up two homemade laminated signs, one reading “Save Our Libraries” and the other documenting how state aid to libraries has declined from $32 million in 2005 to $21 million this year.

“This is my family’s livelihood,” said Clark, 39, a father of three who worries he could lose his job if the state does not find money.

Florida’s annual budget dance is just beginning and it will continue until late April, when the 60-day election-year session is scheduled to end. Gov. Charlie Crist, running for the U.S. Senate, can veto line items from the budget — giving the outgoing governor a chance to polish his credentials as a fiscal conservative.

Even as Republicans fault President Barack Obama’s administration for running up deficits, they’re extending palms in hopes that the feds will come through with a six-month extension of a Medicaid stimulus program worth about $1 billion to the state. Even without that money, both chambers will have about $2.5 billion in stimulus money plugged into their budgets.

Overall, however, for the third year in a row, lawmakers are in a tight spot. They must continue to fund public schools, health care and other programs at existing levels to continue spending the federal stimulus cash. At the same time, that federal help will start to fade next year, forcing lawmakers to find more state money to keep programs afloat.

For now, lawmakers aren’t budgeting $1 billion in new Medicaid stimulus money because Congress has not yet approved it. If the money arrives, “I suspect we’ll use most of it in health care,” said Senate budget writer JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Some parts of the House budget are built on a foundation of election-year politics. For the second year in a row, budget chairman David Rivera, a congressional candidate, inserted language that ensures colleges and universities can’t use money for embryonic stem cell research or travel to federally designated terrorist-sponsoring nations such as Cuba.

In what has become a perennial exercise, advocates for health and human services are voicing alarm as programs scrounge for money while Medicaid rolls swell. The state-federal program for poor women, children and the elderly now serves about 14 percent of Florida’s population.

The House tries to protect Medicaid services but calls for a $146 million cut to nursing homes and a $173 million cut to hospitals. But it saves meals for needy seniors, unlike the Senate, and protects programs for the frail elderly and transplant survivors.

The House spends $145 million more on public-safety programs than the Senate, which eliminates 1,900 filled and vacant prison jobs. The Senate wants to turn some traffic misdemeanors into mere civil citations, and it also includes a controversial money-saving provision that could shave two months off the sentences of some nonviolent offenders.

The House recommends eliminating 50 positions in the Office of Insurance Regulation, a 20 percent cut. Chief of staff Audrey Brown told lawmakers that without an equal cut in duties, “We will fail at our mission.”

Both the House and Senate suggest an 8 percent increase in college and university tuition.

The Senate plan for K-12 public schools would increase average spending per student by $15.41 for a total of $6,881.18. It would reach that level, though, only if all 67 school districts increase property taxes by 0.25 mills or $25 for $100,000 worth of taxable property. Only 42 counties have passed the optional tax.

The House proposal would reduce per-student funding by about $31 to $6,835.

But with economic conditions still bleak, lawmakers like even those unimpressive numbers. “If we end up with a (slight) reduction, that’s a huge victory for education,” said Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey.