Florida Republicans push ahead with budget cuts

Mar 6, 2008

Lawmakers vow to stay within the state’s smaller budget, a result of the economy.

John Kennedy
Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Orlando Sentinel--Mar. 6, 2008

House Republicans turned back a steady push Wednesday by Democrats looking to block cuts to community colleges, public schools and county health departments, forging ahead with $517 million in budget cuts.

Republicans also made it clear that there was no chance they would support tax increases while the state’s economy is staggering.

"We’re not going to raise taxes, we’re not going to expand gambling, and we will reduce expenditures where we can," said House budget chairman Ray Sansom, R-Destin.

Breaking mostly along party lines, the House approved the package of cuts 75-41, with the Senate poised to take up a similar roster of budget reductions today.

Lawmakers plan to OK final cuts to this year’s $70 billion budget next week — before turning their attention to chopping as much as $2.5 billion out of next year’s spending plan.

"No one is excited about cutting the budget," said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "But we’re here to live within our means. And what we’re going to have to do to the 2008-09 budget pales by comparison."

Sansom tried to downplay the overall impact of the current round of reductions — which come only five months after lawmakers slashed $1 billion from the same spending plan because of the weak economy.

"Remember that the reductions we are making today are less than 1 percent of our overall budget," Sansom told lawmakers.

House members endured five hours of debate over the cuts, as Democrats sought to eliminate funding cuts to historically black colleges, public defenders and universities, among other programs.

House Minority Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach said Miami-Dade Community College has been forced to reduce 1,000 classes in his home county, denying as many as 30,000 students the courses they need to graduate.

"This isn’t Monopoly money," Gelber said. "These are people’s lives."

Education would absorb the biggest cut — about $350 million. Public schools lose the most — $55 per child.

Republicans, however, pointed out that even with the reduction, schools will retain a 4.5 percent per-student increase from last year. "It isn’t raining in the K-12 system, it isn’t drizzling. It isn’t even cloudy," said House Education Council Chairman Joe Pickens, R-Palatka.

Still, Democrats tried to restore the $233 million cut in basic operating funds for school districts. "Do we really want our education system to collapse?" said Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, D-Miami.

But the amendment failed on a 72-43 vote, almost entirely along party lines.

Among the Democrats’ few victories was restoring an $8 million cut to a program awarding 10-percent salary bonuses and other incentives to public-school teachers.

But the reductions that were approved course through virtually all areas of state spending:

* Cultural, historical and library-grant programs will lose $2.1 million;

* Seventy-five jobs will be eliminated across state government, although most are vacant;

* Universities willlose $42 million in financial aid and other programs. Of that, the University of Central Florida will lose $4.3 million;

* Voluntary pre-kindergarten programs will be reduced $6.7 million, out of a total $350 million budget. Lawmakers say this is money that is currently unused;

* School-readiness programs would lose $700,000, although lawmakers say no children will be dropped.

Rep. Clay Ford, R-Gulf Breeze, said that in most cases, agencies should absorb the reductions easily.