Lawmakers start budget cuts

Tallahassee, FL – A week of legislative committee meetings revealed that Florida's budget shortfall continues to grow. James Call reports, as Lawmakers began a search for savings, a Senate leader said he wants to cut spending even more to build up cash reserves to protect the state's credit rating.

Governor Rick Scott had a winning message on the campaign trail. He told voters he believed the government spends too much money and if elected he would begin deflating what he called a bloated budget.

I'm going through every line item in the budget. But, it's too big. I mean we don't need to be spending this much money. And I don't think we do a good enough job in how we buy things. And so I think we can buy a lot of things, better."

The Governor's budget recommendation is due Feb. 7th. Indications are he will cut spending by about five billion dollars. Tax and fee collections are expected to be 3.6 billion dollars short of meeting the current budget and Scott also had promised two billion dollars in tax cuts.

The Legislature is reviewing agencies plans to reduce spending.

A senate transportation and economic development committee is reviewing plans to solve Florida's money problems by eliminating state jobs. State agencies have submitted spending reduction proposals that eliminates programs and employees. Some committee members found it ironic that an agency charged with reducing unemployment would lay off staff and stop performing services designed to help people find work and stay employed. Miami Senator Larcenia Bullard.

"My, my, it seems like we are cutting the most vulnerable of those in our society. I mean if you look at the workforce program and the early learning program it would take a real blind person not to see that uh there is a serious problem there."

Bullard is a Democrat. And her Republican Colleagues agree that there is a problem. They say it's that the state does not have the money to maintain current spending levels. Senator Don Gaetz explained if there are not cuts in services then checks written by the state of Florida will begin to bounce.

"If you don't like a cut proposed then you are free to propose a different cut. But at the end of the day we don't have zero-based budgeting we have negative number based budgeting. So we can bemoan the fact that we made cuts but at the end of the day we have a constitutional responsibility that you know better than I to balance the budget."

Lawmakers will get the final numbers to build next year's budget in March. They say sluggish tax collections, double digit unemployment and new demands on Medicaid, medical services for the poor, are conspiring to force them to change the state's spending habits. Senate President Pro Temp Mike Bennett indicates that all areas of government and the services it provides will have less money next year.

"This aint' going to be a fun picnic, folks. This is going to be brutal. And I think we should try to protect the neediest of the needy. But make sure you understand that they are going to take a whack too. And it's going to be one brutal year. It's one of the things we have to do. It's what we were elected to do."

Senator JD Alexander is the Senate's budget chief. At a budget workshop he explained to lawmakers that the shortfall may be bigger than they had thought. In the past decade Florida had borrowed more than 11 billion dollars. To protect the state's credit rating Alexander would like to deposit another billion dollars into a working capital fund. That would widen the shortfall for next year's budget to almost five billion dollars. Alexander backed away from Bennett's comment that the spending cuts will be brutal. He prefers the word difficult.

"I do think this uh is the most challenging budget that the state faces and the choices that we will have to make in order to balance this budget will be very difficult and I think it is doable but it will cause choices on the political process that it had not had to make in decades."

Alexander said if spending remains on the current trend then education and Medicaid will consume nearly all the money generated by the state sales tax; the source of 70-percent of the state budget. That is an analysis that concerns Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich. She said it sets up a situation where children and the sick are pitted against each in a fight for money.

"We move along that we try not to pit one against the other because I think that is very unproductive and will not I think help our constituents to have the needs out across the state."

(Alexander)- "senator it is not my wish to pit one against the other but with a 4 billion dollar budget hole the realities are the realities. We are where we are. If the minority leader would like to propose a tax increase then you certainly have that opportunity."

Democrats have suggested closing some sales tax exemptions but the Republican majority and the Governor campaigned on cutting spending. Lawmakers return to the state capitol the second week of February to work on balancing the budget. By that time they will have the Governor's budget recommendation which is expected to include his promised tax cuts.