Legislature keeps looking for cuts

Published: Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 11:14 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - While state lawmakers moved ahead on cuts in critical health care services for the poor and elderly on Wednesday, they also acknowledged that relief may be on the way from Washington.

As part of their effort to resolve a $2.3 billion budget deficit in a two-week special session, House and Senate committees approved bills that would cut up to $259 million from health and social service programs for Florida's most vulnerable residents.

The health-care reductions are part of an overall plan that would cut more than $1 billion in state spending - including more than $600 million in education funding.

In addition to the cuts, lawmakers are expected to borrow about $1 billion from a state savings account and tobacco settlement fund to bring the state budget back into balance.

But the health-care cuts, which would impact fragile seniors who want to remain in their homes and adults and children seeking mental health and substance abuse care, have been particularly troubling to some lawmakers. The proposal also includes rate cuts for hospitals, nursing homes and other health-care providers.

"The most vulnerable are getting hit and hurt," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hallandale Beach, who voted against the Senate version of the bill.

At the same time, social services advocates and state officials said the $775 billion federal economic relief being advanced by President-elect Barack Obama could provide as much as $3 billion over the next two years for health and social service programs for Florida's poor. Additional federal funding is expected for transportation and public works projects.

George Sheldon, secretary of the state Department of Children and Families, said he expects the relief package to be passed as early as next month, giving state officials and lawmakers a better idea of what money will be available when the Legislature convenes its regular session in March.

Republicans said they've already built in provisions to use the stimulus money if it becomes available.

Based on preliminary estimates, Sheldon said the state could receive about $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year over the next two years for health and social services programs. A large portion of the money would come from the federal government increasing its support for the Medicaid health-care program, where the federal government now pays slightly more than 55 percent of the cost.

Additionally, the state is expecting relief for its overburdened food stamp program, which now serves about 1.8 million Floridians. The state could benefit from a plan that would increase the federal match for the program from 50 percent to 75 percent.

On Wednesday, Republican majorities in two House appropriations committees approved deficit-reduction adjustments to the $66.3 billion state budget on party line votes as a prelude to floor action today.

Lawmakers also appear to agree on raising traffic ticket fines to generate about $16 million more for the rest of this budget year, which ends June 30, and $63 million next year.

A Senate committee Wednesday approved a bill to increase all traffic fines by $10. Some of the speediest of speeding violators would pay $25 more. Also, violators no longer would get an 18 percent break on their fines if they go to traffic schools.

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