Updated: Crist smiles on budget plan

Apr 29, 2008

Tallahassee.com--April 29, 2008

By Jim Ash

The same Gov. Charlie Crist who last year set a single-season record for vetoing budget pork hinted this morning that he will be much more accommodating when the $66.2 billion spending plan lands on his desk.

Crist surprised supporters and detractors alike last year when he vetoed $459 million in spending projects. This year may be much different, he said at a press conference this morning.

“I am grateful to members of the House and Senate with what they have done in this very difficult year,” Crist said. “I have no inclination to veto anything they have done.”

Lawmakers may have already done much of the work for him. The new budget slashes more than $4 billion in spending, including $1.3 billion in health and social service programs.

Crist called the press conference to announce a Serve to Preserve energy summit June 25-26 in Miami. He issued a series of executive orders at the star-studded event last year calling for strict caps on greenhouse gas emissions and massive investment in Earth friendly technology.

The budget this year has $20 million in renewable energy projects, and another $50 million for a university consortium to continue the research, said Department of Environmental Secretary Mike Sole. Crist recommended $200 million, but he said he’s happy with the results.

“This legislation is a great step forward,” he said.

Florida budget set for final vote

The moving target that has been Florida’s $66.2 billion budget came in for a bumpier than usual landing Monday evening when it was delivered to lawmakers’ desks at 6:28 p.m., setting up a final up or down vote on Friday, the last day of the legislative session.

Negotiations over more than $4 billion in cuts have been so frantic, and so covert, news broke only Monday morning that a “final” deal announced over the weekend wasn’t final at all.

Astonished observers learned that sometime between Sunday afternoon and early Monday, $50 million magically appeared for Everglades restoration.

“It’s a very big priority of the Senate,” said a weary top lieutenant, Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, acknowledging that the item was missing from a spreadsheet released when the deal was announced on Sunday

Her House counterpart, Ray Sansom, said the last minute deal was the prerogative of House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami and Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-West Miami.

“They have a right to do that,” Sansom said. “I think it’s going to be hard for anyone to vote no on this budget.”

The budget includes a 1.8 percent cut in per-student spending from the year before.

For Leon schools that figure translates to $6,928 per student, a drop of more than $203 from the year before.

The budget is the only legislation lawmakers are required to pass, and Republicans have touted it as a hallmark of compassionate conservatism.

The spending plan holds the line on tax increases and shrinks government to reflect a grinding recession. It includes no pay raises for state workers, although state troopers will get a 5 percent increase to stave off growing turnover rates. Lawmakers decided not to eliminate more than 1,000 prison guards, but they agreed to cut 199 probation officers.

“They’re already hard pressed,” said David Murrell, executive director of the Florida PBA. “The Legislature has made its choice and public safety came up short.”

In one of the few bright spots in a dismal budget year, Space Coast lawmakers managed to win a $15 million appropriation to refurbish a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The plan will attract new business to offset the thousands of layoffs expected when the Space Shuttle is mothballed in 2010.

“The Space Coast is the best place in the world to launch rockets, but we must maintain our infrastructure to be competitive. This appropriation will play a major role in making that happen,” said Rep. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne.

To offset some of the most painful cuts to 40,000 sick and elderly Floridians, lawmakers agreed to a $355 million, one-time dip into a tobacco settlement trust fund.

But as some of the details came into sharper focus, the definition of “tax increase” grew fuzzier.

To blunt the loss of revenue to the state courts system, lawmakers approved more than $90 million in increased court costs, service charges and fees.

For the first time, criminal defendants who ask for a public defender will be required to pay a $50 fee to process the application. Family mediation fees will rise from $80 to $120 for wealthier couples, from $40 to $60 for those with lower incomes.

Boat owners also will feel the sting.

The fee for registering boats and “motorized canoes” shorter than 12 feet will rise from $3.50 to $5.50. Skippers with yachts 110-feet or longer who now pay $122.50 will soon be paying $189. All classes in between will see similar increases.

The registration fees haven’t changed since 1992, with most of the money going to pay for eradication of invasive plants and marine law enforcement.

Hunting and fishing license will be tied to the consumer price index, adjusting automatically every five years unless lawmakers step in.

Wade Hopping, a lobbyist for the boating industry, said there is likely to be little squawking from his clients, although some of the more vocal boating groups will be upset.

“We would have liked to see more of the money go for law enforcement,” he said. “But we haven’t seen an increase for quite some time.”

Landlords will be a big loser in the no-new-taxes budget, complained South Florida lobbyist Ron Book, who represents the Florida Apartment Association.

The cost of going to court to evict a tenant will rise from $75 to $275.

“We are extremely concerned about it,” Book said. “I’ve long been an advocate of adequate funding for the courts, but this is just too much of a disproportionate impact.”

Senate Finance and Tax Chairman Mike Haridopolos, who is sponsoring legislation that would require local government boards to muster a supermajority vote before raising fees, said the Legislature’s fee increases are different from tax increases. He compared it to motorists who chose to use toll roads to save drive time.

“It’s a user fee, it’s not a general fee,” he said. “If you use the system, you would be responsible for paying for it.”

Bill Cotterell contributed to this story.