Gov. Crist urges Florida legislators to dig into reserve funds

Feb 27, 2008

The governor dislikes the Legislature’s plan to cut the budget, especially in education.

By Steve Bousquet, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
St. Petersburg Times--Feb. 27, 2008

TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Charlie Crist signaled Tuesday that he doesn’t like legislative leaders’ half-billion-dollar plan for cutting this year’s state budget, saying they should use reserves to avoid education cuts.

Lawmakers could decide as early as next week to strip another $357-million from public education in the current year. The reduction, slightly over 1 percent, is part of a plan unveiled Monday to cut state spending by $542.5-million by June 30 in response to a drop in state revenue.

"I don’t want to cut education funding. That’s unfortunate," Crist said.

But the governor stopped short of threatening a veto if the Legislature approves the education cuts next week when it returns for the start of the annual session: "I’m not going to talk about the V-word yet."

Legislators say that the reserves don’t exist and that the revenue picture has steadily deteriorated since state economists delivered the last formal revenue estimate in November. That estimate is what Crist used to build his recommendation for the 2008-09 budget. But the Legislature will use one scheduled for early next month.

This much is already known: Over a two-year period, this year and next, the state expects to have about $2-billion less revenue than was forecast last fall.

"The reserves we thought we had, we don’t have," said Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, the chief House education budget expert. "Without trying to be flip about it, you can’t spend what you don’t have."

Lawmakers are wary of spending reserves on day-to-day expenses such as salaries because the money can be spent only once. In subsequent years, the state would have to find a different source to cover the payroll.

Republican lawmakers’ budget-cutting plan reflects a number equal to a 4 percent reduction of the operating budget for state agencies. In the fall, Crist and legislative leaders ordered state agencies to reduce spending 4 percent in case the economy worsened and tax revenue suffered. The holdback came in addition to another $1.2-billion lawmakers cut from the budget in special session in October.

But some judges are still hoping the state courts will get a reprieve to avoid sending home court workers without pay, all but shutting down the state’s court system.

And some legislators gave them hope. In the Broward County Courthouse on Tuesday, Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, got an earful from a judicial assistant worried about losing salary.

"The furlough idea’s not coming from us," Seiler said. "It’s a bad idea, and we’ll get it straightened out."

Hillsborough Chief Judge Manuel Menendez said more cuts would mean furloughs of 22 days for circuit court employees and 58 days for county court employees. Judges would not be affected.

"The sun is not set yet," Menendez said. "I’m led to believe that there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic" that furloughs can be avoided. "As of right now, I’m just trying to keep panic under control."

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said he had planned for this budget crisis, but at a cost.

"I can weather that cut," McCabe said. "It’s meant that I don’t have as many lawyers as I want or need. It’s meant an increased caseload for those I have … and an inability to increase salaries, which I need to do as well."

McCabe said his office employs about 480 people, and 164 of those are lawyers. He kept 44 positions open by not replacing departed staffers or hiring new ones, but that has left his office understaffed, he said.

As the cuts stand now, every judicial circuit would be forced to furlough employees, state court administrator Lisa Goodner said Tuesday.

She said that her office is working to come up with budgetary alternatives to furloughs, but that it was too early to discuss specifics.

Even after Crist and lawmakers resolve the current year’s budget shortfall, they have a bigger one next year.

With the state facing a $2-billion shortfall, Crist wants legislators to expand gambling and drain single-purpose budget accounts known as trust funds to help make ends meet. Many legislators are skeptical of both of those approaches.