Senate passes $70 billion budget

Feb 23, 2012

The Florida Senate passed a 71.2 billion dollar budget today. It’s about 2-billion dollars higher than the House Proposal. But Regan McCarthy reports lawmakers are concerned concerns about cuts to higher education, health and human services and the criminal justice budget.

Senate Budget Committee Chair J.D. Alexander says this year’s budget makes some difficult cuts, but he says economic forecasts for the coming years are looking up.

Given the outlook of the next two years being somewhat better, hopefully this is the bottom of the trough and then we can build budgets that are responsible in the coming years without taking deeper cuts than we have in the current bill.”

Some of the most contentious cuts come from the higher education budget. And while Alexander, a Republican from Lake Wales, admits it’s not a “perfect policy,” he says the reductions can be made up for with reserves.

Universities in total as of 12/31 of this year hold 859-million dollars in uncommitted cash in their collective bank accounts and we’re asking to have about 400-million of that returned to the state through a mechanism of one time reductions that then restore to normal next year.”

But some lawmakers say they’ve heard from university officials that those reserve dollars aren’t really available because they’ve already been committed. Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Senator Evelyn Lynn says it’s true some of the dollars universities hold in reserve are committed, but she underscores the budget only counts money that was available as of December 31st. She adds she’s confident the level of education offered will not suffer because of the plan.

I do not anticipate that there will be any endangerment of the opportunities for students or the quality of programs offered.”

And a series of amendments takes care of what senator Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey calls the “unfair singling out” of the University  of South Florida. The school was targeted for deeper budget cuts than its counterparts, but Senator Jim Norman, a Republican from Tampa, says the amendments bring the University of South Florida’s funding more in line with that of other schools around the state.

“It puts university of South Florida on that same playing field as everyone else because there’s proviso language that says for these kids to fulfil their educations to continue on with USF, if there’s any dollar shortfalls, USF will receive full funding for those educations.”

Norman says the university is made whole and from his view the amendments make the budget fair.

Other cuts targeted in the budget include closing several Florida prisons. Criminal Justice Appropriations Chair Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff says closing the prisons is a necessary move—pointing out that privatizing the state’s prisons could have changed that.

“We basically need to find a cost savings in 2012-2013 of approximately 74-million dollars. And that is in large part because we did not privatize so there was another 16-million that we could have saved there, to maybe keep open the prisons, but you know, we have to do most of our savings of the 140-million, which we were asked to reduce through the closures.”

Lawmakers also debated the proposed Health and Human Services Budget including reductions in Adult Mental Health and Substance abuse. After taking some fire, Budget Committee Chair Senator Joe Negron repeats what seems to have become almost a mantra -- It’s tough to make cuts.

“There are difficult decisions that have to be made and we have to juxtapose one important critical need against another important critical needs and funding a child hanging on for life in a neonatal unit is important, funding early steps for a down syndrome child is important. So these are all difficult decisions, and so its not a lack of compassion, its not a lack of acknowledging the dignity of every citizen who has a problem, but there are limited resources.”

And Lawmakers considered a slew of amendments including several that Senator Paula Dockery, a Republican from Lakeland, calls “Member Projects.” That’s the reason she says she voted against the budget. Others say they can’t support the budget because it doesn’t find new revenue, or because they’re concerned about cuts in areas like education.

The Senate passed its budget  33- 6. Next the House and Senate will meet in conference to work out differences between their proposals.