Panels reject Crist’s backup-fund plea
Mar 4, 2008
Miami Herald–Mar. 04, 2008
By MARY ELLEN KLAS
Gov. Charlie Crist postponed his annual state of the state speech Tuesday from noon to 6 p.m. on the chance that more people might tune in to the public television broadcast to learn how, as he describes it, “to continue strengthening Florida’s families, schools and economy.”
But with the state budget in turmoil, the governor’s how-to lesson in state finance might take convincing for his first audience — the Florida Legislature — because it is not buying his approach.
On Monday, the eve of the regular session, House and Senate committees moved forward with more than $500 million in budget cuts, rejecting the governor’s suggestion to cut fewer programs and tap into more reserve accounts.
Legislators must spend the first week of their 60-day session bringing the current year’s budget into balance. Then they will start cutting another $2.5 billion to make up for the drop in revenue expected from next year’s spending plan, which begins July 1.
The bulk of the budget cuts come from education, which the governor wants spared from the budget ax. The proposed budgets do restore money to courts to avoid weeks of furloughs of judicial staff.
Crist will address the Republican-led Legislature in a 20-minute speech expected to be an upbeat assessment of Florida’s future and a plea to legislators to use rainy day funds to offset cuts because, the governor said last week, “it’s drizzling.”
But legislators are reluctant to adopt his approach.
”It’s a rainy year,” House Speaker Marco Rubio recently said. “Unfortunately, the forecast calls for more than one rainy year and we have to balance that.”
The House’s budget chairman, Rep. Ray Sansom, said the governor’s numbers simply won’t work.
”I applaud his optimism,” he said. “When the House and Senate put together the budget, we have to base our budget on the numbers we actually have, not speculation. And there’s no evidence that between now and next fiscal year that the economy is going to get better to [that] point.”
Even in the Senate, where veteran members have seen tight budget years before, Crist has some work to do.
”His job is to convince us and the constituencies that this is just a temporary speed bump, not a permanent detour,” said Sen. Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican. “Because of the fact that he’s been so adamant about the fact that everything is wonderful, great and whatever, sooner or later the rubber meets the road.”
TALKING TO DEMOCRATS
Crist has been appealing to legislators, especially Democrats, to take his side. Rep. Jack Seiler, a Wilton Manors Democrat, said Crist called him Sunday night “to talk about the need to use reserves.”
All but one Democrat on the House budget committee voted against the cut package, with many arguing that cuts to the courts as well as programs aimed at reforming teenage criminals, such as the PACE Center for Girls, will come back to haunt Republicans when they have to lock up adult criminals who weren’t rehabilitated
”We can pay now or pay later, but for sure we will pay,” said Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, a Miami Democrat.
Rep. Joyce Cusack, a DeLand Democrat, even sounded like Crist, suggesting to GOP members to “use some of our rainy day funds to provide assistance.”
But Sansom, the House budget chairman, chastised Democrats and suggested the lawmakers ”don’t have a printing press” for money.
As partisan bickering escalated in the House, several Senate committees voted on plans for deep cuts with little discussion.
The Senate’s Education Appropriations Committee approved $265 million in proposed cuts to K-12 education and $92 million to universities and community colleges. Miami-Dade schools would take a $29 million hit, while Broward schools would lose $22 million.
Cuts to South Florida public universities include $3.4 million for Florida International University and $2.8 million for Florida Atlantic University. The Bright Futures program would take a $9 million cut.
The exercise prompted Sen. Bill Posey, a Rockledge Republican, to sympathize with the governor.
”I’m glad I’m not giving the state of the state speech,” he said.
Posey said Crist has been ”a master” at spending political capital, but noted that there’s only so much Crist can do when the state’s finances are in such tough shape. ”Money is the nectar that nourishes new ideas,” Posey said.