GOVERNOR UNVEILS $55.4 BILLION BUDGET

Budget seeks more tax cuts, school money


Gov. Jeb Bush makes a point during his budget presentation.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: Wednesday, January 21, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 21, 2004 at 12:37 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday unveiled an election-year budget that repeated many of the same spending requests that have guided his five years in office: more for schools, more for tax cuts and more for the disabled.
Bush sent to Florida lawmakers a $55.4 billion budget proposal that asks them to renew the popular sales tax holiday and help universities and community colleges recover from budget cuts the past two years.
But the governor's spending plan also relies on tuition increases for college students, takes care of only one-tenth of those families seeking subsidized children's health insurance and uses $1.6 billion of one-time money for ongoing programs.
It also diverts millions from accounts now dedicated to affordable housing and road-building programs, and it would require counties to pay nearly $90 million to detain juvenile criminals awaiting trial.
Bush, who also called for nearly $500 million in budget cuts, defended the way he crafted this year's spending plan, saying it supported his beliefs of restraining the size of government. The overall budget he sent to legislators would increase state spending by 2.6 percent.
"Our government should not grow faster than the income of Florida's families," Bush said. "I know that sounds like a really radical idea, but I passionately believe it. I believe it strongly. I believe a majority of Floridians support that idea."
In spending more than an hour going through the proposal on Tuesday, Bush praised past tax cuts and said they had served as an economic stimulus that had allowed Florida to avoid the cutbacks that have occurred in other states.
But Bush once again called on legislators to send back to voters the class-size reduction constitutional amendment and high-speed rail amendment. Bush's budget includes an additional $508 million to pay for class-size reduction, but the governor did not recommend the $75 million being sought by the Florida High Speed Rail Authority.
"The storm really hasn't passed, we are just caught in the center, the eye of the hurricane," Bush said. "As the storm gathers strength, we must use this brief pause for a plan for survival and a plan of progress for our state."
This was the sixth year that Bush has presented his budget recommendations to state lawmakers, and it reflected many of his top priorities. There's $1 billion more for public schools, an increase of 7.12 percent, although most of that money is to pay for class-size reduction.
Bush's budget proposal also recommended increases in money to help spur more adoptions, money to restore cuts to drug treatment programs, and he recommended another increase for money to aid the developmentally disabled. But Bush also recommended slashing reimbursement rates for health maintenance organizations, hospitals and nursing homes that provide Medicaid to the poor and elderly.
Bush also nearly fully funded the requested budget from the Department of Corrections, advocating a nearly $200 million increase that includes $99 million for additional prison construction projects.
Bush's tax cut proposals included spending $91 million to reduce the intangibles tax paid by investors who have more than $500,000 worth of stocks and bonds held outside of retirement accounts. Bush also proposed a nine-day sales tax holiday on school supplies and clothing and a monthlong sales tax holiday on books.
Republican lawmakers generally praised Bush's budget proposal this year - lauding his proposal for the $104 million spending increase for community colleges and a nearly $190 million boost for universities, including $20 million more to spur university research.
"After a cursory evaluation of the budget unveiled by the governor this morning, my feeling is that this is a good, straightforward budget," said Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "I am very pleased with some of the recommendations, such as those in higher education, where Florida's universities and community colleges are allocated more state dollars than in past years."
But both King and Senate Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said they were worried that Bush had spent too much one-time money on recurring programs. They said this could prove to be dangerous if the economy falters once again.
"I have always felt that using non-recurring dollars on recurring needs is a dangerous gamble," King said. "Another unexpected event, such as Sept. 11, could dramatically affect our budget stability."
Democrats, however, roundly criticized the budget, especially Bush's decision to recommend only $30 million to take care of 10,500 children of working-class families now on the waiting list for subsidized health insurance. The waiting list for children who don't qualify for Medicaid but are seeking help is nearly 100,000.
"If you are eligible for a tax cut, you don't have to wait in line," said Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton.
Some Senate Republicans also said they had trouble with the proposal to reduce the intangibles tax rate.
"It is not appropriate during these challenging times," said Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on education.
Democrats also criticized the proposal to raise university tuition. Bush wants to raise undergraduate university tuition by 7.5 percent for in-state students and graduate student tuition by 12.5 percent while allowing community colleges to raise tuition by 5 percent. Full-time undergraduate students at universities would pay nearly $143 more a year.
Bush denied that his budget recommendations were drawn up to help Republicans in the 2004 elections.
But Bush conceded he was seeking to avoid a budget stalemate this year by recommending $22 million for projects at the University of South Florida and Florida State University that are top priorities for both Senate President King and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City.
Last year, budget negotiations stalled over Byrd's desire for money for an Alzheimer's research institute at USF. Bush now is asking legislators for $11 million for the Alzheimer's research institute and $5.3 million for the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory run by FSU and the University of Florida as well as $5.3 million for a new school of chiropractic medicine for FSU.
"Rather than do the dance which we do every year and have it be an element that makes it harder to get the hard work done, I made it clear that I support these leadership initiatives," Bush said. "These are not bad ideas. I will embrace them. And I think it will bring it about more consensus."

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