Senate taking its time in drafting new state spending plan

Jan 27, 2012

The state budget is one of two bills Florida lawmakers HAVE to pass. And an early start to the legislative session means the revenue picture is still unclear.  One chamber wants to wait for it to come into focus. But as Lynn Hatter reports  the other is on the verge of voting on a spending plan to carry the state through the next fiscal year, and staking an early claim to how funding for the state’s many services will be distributed.  

In a Senate education budget committee lawmakers are going through the budget line-by-line. The Senate doesn’t have a proposal of its own, so it’s looking at one crafted by Governor Rick Scott and a preliminary draft by the House—which has already completed its spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.

Governor Rick Scott has called for a billion dollar increase to education. The House has put that number at $1.1-billion. But the Senate’s chief education budget writer David Simmons, a Maitland Republican, wants to top that number.

“In order to get the level funding with last year, the House number is approximately $300-million off, the governor’s proposal is approximately $320 million off…and the question is, what will the senate do…”

If the senate goes along with Simmons’ plan, it would restore most of the money lawmakers cut from education last session. There’s just one problem.  At this point, for the Senate, it’s all hypothetical. Lawmakers in that chamber haven’t even started writing a proposal, and when they’ll start is still up in the air.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos says he’s still not comfortable with revenue estimates projecting a $1.4 billion dollar gap lawmakers have to fill. 

“We have not put out allocations and for a simple reason. I still want more information from the individual budget chairs before I tell them what we can and cannot spend.”

And he wants to wait and see if newer projections paint a different picture.

“I think I brought the Wall Street journal in the other day and said, look: Anyone who says this is a stable economy isn’t reading their newspapers. And that's the tact I’ve taken as president --   slow and steady, take in as much information as you can -- so we’re still a few weeks away from allocations.”

Slow-and-steady. Like the fable of the tortoise and the hare. It’s a story that’s playing out in the Florida legislature, as the Senate (the tortoise) plods along, while the Hare (the House) pushes forward with a budget proposal that’s similar to what the governor has proposed,  with a little extra money for education and a little less for Health and Human Services.  But the House isn’t going as far as the governor’s recommended two-billion dollar cut to Healthcare. Representative Matt Hudson is the Chairman of that committee, and is taking another approach.

 “Overall I think there’s an overall spend about 1-percent less than last year. But that includes when you add in the Medicaid workload adjustments, the KidCare workload adjustments. So there is a decrease but overall I think it’s a very modest increase and it does an excellent job of ensuring our seniors are taken care of.”

The governor’s 15-percent hospital rate reduction is slimmed down to seven in the House proposal.  Nursing homes lose only about two-and-a-half percent. And adults on Medicaid would lose some services. The Agency for Persons with Disabilities would get extra money to help with their ongoing budget problems.

Transportation, general government and the environment would all lose money.

Speaker Dean Cannon says all House budget committees have finished writing their proposals and a floor vote is coming soon. He says he’s not too concerned about the Senate’s “slow-and-steady” approach to budgeting.

“We’ve not got a formal request to extend session. I think the senate is the more deliberative chamber. We feel that we’re doing our job well and we’ve told them that we’re ready to talk. The ball is in their court, but it’s not even halftime yet, so I’m not really worried about it yet.”

In the fable of the tortoise and the hare the Tortoise won the race, but in Tallahassee, they’re still taking bets on what a final budget will look like, and if it gets done on time.