State Politics

Forecasts unlikely to end budget debate

TALLLAHASSEE -- Citing an “abnormally slow recovery,” state economists on Thursday continued to predict modest growth in the coming year’s tax collections.

The new forecast is in line with past predictions, meaning it is expected to do little to make a dent in the state’s nearly $2 billion budget shortfall.

Now the GOP-controlled Legislature must decide whether to accept the new estimates and move ahead on putting together a new budget - or delay and hope that the state’s economy picks up more than anticipated.

So far it appears top legislative leaders remain divided on what to do next.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos suggested again that legislators should think about waiting until later in the year.

“I firmly believe that this gives us, as the budget writers for this state, more reason to proceed with caution,” Haridopolos said in a statement. “As I have stated before, I firmly believe it’s important that we finalize a budget only when we are confident that we have the most accurate and reliable numbers possible.”

The state’s fiscal year starts July 1 and usually legislators wait until early May before passing the annual budget. Lawmakers started their annual session early this year in order to deal with the once-a-decade job of drawing new maps for congressional and legislative districts.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said many senators agree with Haridopolos about postponing any work on the budget.

“What’s the rush?” Latvala asked.

That attitude has not been shared by leading House Republicans, who say there’s no reason that legislators can’t finish all their work within their normal 60-day calendar.

House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said that getting the budget done will help send the right message to Floridians.

Gov. Rick Scott also said he would like to see legislators finish on time.

“Unless somebody has a better idea. ... It seems to me we ought to go forward and get it done,” Scott said.

Part of the stalemate could be about the normal posturing that goes on between the two chambers at the start of the session. But there are political ramifications either way.

Some voters could get upset if legislators are forced to return for a special session later in the year.

But Latvala said if the economy continues to recover, there’s a chance that lawmakers could have more money and avoid the need for extensive budget cuts.

“I’m not going to support the same level of cuts that I supported last year,” said Latvala.

Scott himself has called for legislators to approve pumping in $1 billion more of state money into public schools and in his State of the State speech threatened to veto the budget if legislators don’t go along. But in order to come up with the extra cash, Scott also called for deep cuts in Medicaid, including payments made to hospitals to treat poor patients.

The new forecasts approved by economists on Thursday conclude the state’s main tax collections are expected to grow by nearly $690 million or 3.1 percent higher in the current budget year. Economists are projecting an increase of $1.3 billion or 5.4 percent during the fiscal year that starts in July. That’s a change of just $26 million from previous estimates.

Despite that growth there is a projected budget shortfall because lawmakers still want to put aside $1 billion in reserves - and they have to contend with growing expenses in programs such as Medicaid.

“While the shortfall will present many challenges as we prepare for the budget year, closing the gap is not insurmountable,” said Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Lake Wales and the House budget chief. “Delaying these tough choices will not make them go away.”