Miami Herald: Broward delegation to prioritize education, health and human services at legislative session

Mar 2, 2010

The Miami Herald published this article on March 2, 2010.

Amid a $3.2 billion shortfall, Broward legislators will play defense trying to prevent cuts while also pushing for ethics reform.


Franklin Sands, the house’s Democratic leader from Broward County, calls the upcoming legislative session “the year of pain.”

Facing an estimated $3.2 billion budget shortfall in Florida, the Democrat-dominated legislative delegation will try to protect spending for education, health and human services while the GOP-controlled Legislature moves toward spending cuts.

Lawmakers have “cut into the bone already, the last two years,” said Sen. Nan Rich, vice chairwoman of a health and human services committee and Weston Democrat. “The whole name of the game is budget, and how do we protect the most vulnerable people in our system and maintain some level of funding for education.”

Local leaders worry about cost-cutting in Tallahassee trickling down to the school district, county and cities when tax revenues are dropping due to an estimated 16 percent reduction in property values countywide.

The message from local governments to Tallahassee: spare us.

“We are just fighting for our life here,” said Gretchen Harkins, who tracks state legislation for Broward County.

Harkins’ analysis of Crist’s proposed budget shows large cuts to Broward programs ranging from beach renourishment to mental health treatment for adults.

Though some legislators are hopeful about finding new sources of revenue such as closing corporate tax loopholes, so far the emphasis has been on cutting.

“It is going to be absolutely ugly and brutal, and it’s an election year — that is when the claws and fangs are sure to come out,” said State Rep. Evan Jenne, a Democrat from Dania Beach.

No additional taxes will mean cuts across the board, said state Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale.

“There is no new source of revenue you can create that is not going to affect somebody’s pocketbook,” the Republican legislator said.

This year’s legislative session, starting March 2, comes at a unique time in Florida politics: All four Cabinet seats are open, and Republican Gov. Charlie Crist is in a fierce primary battle with former House Speaker Marco Rubio for a U.S. Senate seat.

In South Florida, Bogdanoff is running for a state senate seat. And Sen. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat whose district includes part of Broward, is running for attorney general. Both Bogdanoff and Gelber are proposing legislation to crack down on public corruption.

Bogdanoff authored a bill to create an inspector general to investigate corruption at County Hall, the School Board and other government offices — though county commissioners and the county’s Ethics Commission also are moving ahead with similar proposals.

The push for ethics reform comes after a trio of federal corruption arrests in September. Former County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion pleaded guilty in December in a money laundering case and faces five years in prison.

Cases against former School Board member Beverly Gallagher and former Miramar Commissioner Fitzroy Salesman continue as well.

Gelber is sponsoring a handful of public corruption bills including a proposal pushed by Broward State Attorney Mike Satz to make failing to disclose a conflict for public officials its own crime.

Gelber says growing public outrage about corruption is pushing the Legislature to act.

“Frankly, there is very little the Legislature can do positively in a tough budget year so this might actually get attention,” he said.

Broward legislators are pushing for a slew of other bills that would revamp background checks for day-care workers, limit the number of pills dispensed at pain clinics and add the homeless as a protected class for hate crimes.

But the budget will be at the forefront. Crist proposed a $69.2 billion budget that is $2.7 billion higher than this year, arguing that the increase is needed to pay for rising Medicaid costs. But his budget is based on assumptions including the Legislature’s approval of a new gaming compact, an economic rebound and voter approval for a less-strict formula for measuring class sizes.

Crist is pushing to undo the class size amendment that voters approved in 2002 and will cost the state about $16 billion by the end of this school year.

Class size is measured by a schoolwide average, but starting this fall schools must measure it by classroom — another $3.2 billion expense for the next school year. Crist and some legislators want to continue using the current method.

Broward School Board Chair Jennifer Gottlieb agrees with Crist, but there may not be much sympathy in Tallahassee for the Broward school district, with thousands of empty seats.

But Crist’s proposal doesn’t sit well with some legislators.

“It seems like a watering down. This isn’t what voters intended,” Jenne said.