Florida lawmakers to cut $2.3 billion from budget

Published: Sunday, January 4, 2009 at 5:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 4, 2009 at 5:34 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Florida legislators begin their search Monday for areas to carve $2.3 billion from the current state budget during a two-week special session brought on by the economic crisis.

Many Floridians, and certainly state employees, face painful cuts in a session called specifically to deal with lower than expected revenues. Florida law requires the state live within its means and lawmakers are required to have a balanced budget.

Their work will also be clouded by the ethical furor surrounding House Speaker Ray Sansom, who took a six-figure job at a college in his Panhandle district where he delivered more than $25 million in last year's budget. The school got much more money than even much larger ones.

Florida is hardly alone in the revenue crisis caused by a yearlong national recession that has left other states in even more financial difficulty. California lawmakers face a $14 billion shortfall in the present budget year and anticipate that might triple in the next 18 months.

Florida lawmakers fear a deficit of nearly $4 billion in the next fiscal year that begins July 1, 2009, resulting in even fewer health benefits for the poor and more overcrowding in a state prison system that already houses more than 100,000 criminals.

The deepening recession is also increasing demand for Medicaid, unemployment benefits and food stamps, which one in 10 Floridians already receive.

But Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is unlikely to join his Republican counterpart from California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in proposing any combination that would include new taxes.

"I'm not warm and fuzzy about that," concedes Crist, who faces some opposition within his own party on some of his suggestions.

Sen. J.D. Alexander of Winter Haven, a Republican who chairs the chamber's budget committee, is among those who prefers more cuts in areas that require annual funding.

Democrats want to look at closing some corporate tax exemptions to raise money.

"We need to look at some of these corporate loopholes that we have given that have really taken billions of dollars away from the state," said Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee. "We've given over $12 billion in tax breaks over the last eight or nine years."

That debate will be continued during the regular nine-week session that begins March 3 when lawmakers are expected to confront the larger deficit expected to dent the 2009-10 budget.

Some Republicans don't think there's much chance they can include proceeds from a deal that let the Seminole Indian Tribe expand gambling at its casinos in exchange for giving the state a cut.

The state has collected and set aside about $70 million from the compact already signed by Crist. But it cannot be used until the Legislature approves the deal, and there's strong opposition on moral and political grounds.

As lawmakers start slashing services, Sansom faces increasing pressure to either step down or give up the the $110,000 college job seen by some as payback for the millions he got for them last spring.

Crist has not criticized the new speaker, but former state Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade told the Tallahassee Democrat that Sansom's deal with Northwest Florida State College "doesn't pass the smell test," and "taints the legislative process and it taints the party."

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