Lawmakers OK state budget cuts

Published: Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 11:12 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - Slashing hundreds of millions of dollars from education, health care and social services, state lawmakers approved a $2.6 billion budget deficit-elimination package Wednesday to end a nine-day special session.

The plan cleared the Republican-controlled Legislature with most Democrats in opposition. The bill goes to Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who has indicated he will sign the measure but is considering some line-item vetoes.

Lawmakers will return in March to begin crafting a budget for the next fiscal year that will require at least $4 billion in additional cuts. With the worldwide economic tumult hitting Florida's construction and real estate markets especially hard, the state's budget already has been cut by about 10 percent - or nearly $7 billion - in the past two years.

"We have cut government to the bone," said Senate Democratic leader Al Lawson, of Tallahassee.

Republican lawmakers repeatedly portrayed the cuts as a necessity forced by the combination of an economic collapse and voters' wishes to not pay more in taxes.

"The teachers will teach; the students will learn," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. "The last thing we can afford to do is raise taxes on our families. We made some tough choices but there were no alternatives."

In a sign of how dire the situation could become, Gov. Charlie Crist and members of both parties said it may be up to Obama's stimulus package to keep education and social service spending at the needed levels.

Crist said he and Wisconsin's Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle were joining together with a letter to Obama asking for quick passage of the federal stimulus plan.

"I think it's very important that we support the new administration," said Crist, a Republican. "Certainly it's going to help Florida, and I believe we'll see some progress there."

It is hard to gauge the impact of this month's emergency cuts to balance the budget. While more than 1,400 state government positions were cut, most were vacant. School officials did not strenuously object to the $466 million cut for K-12 schools - $140 per student - saying they expected worse.

George Sheldon, the secretary of the Department of Children and Families, said his agency was feeling the pressure of the economic downturn.

He said requests for food stamps in Florida have increased 49 percent in the past 20 months, the highest rate in the nation.

"These are people who are not used to applying for benefits," Sheldon said. "These are plumbers, electricians, carpenters who lost their jobs, probably their house is being foreclosed. It's tough."

But Sheldon thanked lawmakers for increasing funds for that program. He said his "biggest concern" was a $10 million cut for programs to treat substance abuse and mental illness.

"As the economy worsens, regrettably people turn to substance abuse, and so there's an increased need there," Sheldon said.

While Republicans eagerly raised fines on traffic violations by $10 and speeding violations by $25, they refused to discuss tax increases on cigarettes or the ratification of a deal to allow the Seminole Indians to expand gambling in exchange for more than $100 million per year.

Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said he expects the state's revenue problems to escalate in the next few months, pointing to the $100 million shortfall in December. He said all revenue options, including a cigarette tax increase and the repeal of sales tax exemptions, will be considered when lawmakers meet in March.

"There are no easy answers now left for going into the spring session believing that we can balance a $4 billion shortfall," he said.

Florida State University President T.K. Wetherell said the school, like other publicly funded programs, will have to start serious cuts this summer.

Vacant positions have been eliminated, and 200 employees will lose their jobs this year, Wetherell said. Fewer students will be enrolled, and satellite campuses and some "high cost, low yield" programs such as fine arts could be cut.

"Those become very difficult to justify," Wetherell said.

Doug Martin is a lobbyist for one of the largest public employee unions in the state, AFSCME. He said deeper cuts would only magnify the economic pain.

"You can't cut your way out of this mess," Martin said. "When the private sector goes down, the public sector must pick up the slack."

Unless the state finds ways to generate more revenue with a more fair tax system, Martin said, "Florida is just going to have a catastrophe."

But with few signs in Tallahassee of a public outcry, some lawmakers said the state would survive the budget cuts just fine.

"The days of that Depression-like atmosphere within the state are not coming," said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. "For the most part, government is going to continue to function. But there is pain out there."

Crist sought to gain some political victory by securing approval for a $10 million "economic gardening" plan to provide low-income loans to small businesses.

But a few lawmakers called the plan a foolish investment that would only help a few businesses that are already profitable.

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