Tallahassee, FL – Senate President Jeff Atwater opened the 2010 Legislative Session telling lawmakers it was time to move away from the banquet table and toward the kitchen table. That's political speak foreshadowing state budget cuts. James Call reports both Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul say Floridians expect state government to live within its means.
Atwater was an important ally for Governor Charlie Crist during the special session on rail. Atwater delivered the votes for a package that helped Florida qualify for a federal high speed rail grant worth billions of dollar last year. This year, Atwater and Crist are walking different paths to a balanced budget.
"It is important to remember that we are stewards of the taxpayers' money, and the decision of the distribution of state funds resides squarely on us."
State economists tell lawmakers they may be facing a $3.2-billion shortfall for next year's budget. Governor Crist has outlined a plan to increase spending by four-percent. Leaders in the Senate and House greeted the proposal with skepticism. Atwater says when building a budget, lawmakers need to keep in mind that the recession has reawakened in Floridians the values associated with the greatest generation.
"Our constituents are looking to us for honesty and courage. They are asking us to behave in a way that they have been compelled to behave, to spend within our means, to shun the luxuries and embrace the core essentials, to question the purpose and values of every dollar spent."
One fault line for the Crist budget proposal is how much money the state has in reserves, its savings account. Atwater is a candidate for chief financial officer. Crist is running for the U-S Senate. If everything goes according to their plans, Crist will be in D.C. while Atwater stays in Tallahassee to deal with any fallout from budget decisions made during the next fifty-nine days.
"In these tight financial times, the need for reserves is more important than ever."
House speaker Larry Cretul is rare among leading lawmakers. He's not running for anything and indicates he's committed to rebuilding the state's savings account.
"State bond experts have given testimony and told us that in order to protect the state's triple-A savings, there must be adequate reserves. In previous years, you know, that was easy. This year, it is not. It took Florida thirty years to get a triple-A rating. We do not want to lose it in four or five months."
Both Cretul and Atwater want lawmakers to practice fiscal responsibility and make it easier for entrepreneurs and small businesses to succeed. They say that is the path to a sound economy and a prosperous Florida. Members of the Democratic minority say missing from the analysis is closing the many tax loopholes they say cost the state billions.
Senator Dan Gelber said, "Right now, if you are a company that's headquartered elsewhere, you get tax breaks that Florida-only corporations can't avail themselves of. That is just wrong and unfair. We have too many, too much public money being spent on jobs that go to workers from Texas and Georgia and not workers from Florida, frankly."
Gelber thinks there is little chance the Republican-controlled Legislature will try to close tax loopholes or raise more revenue. The opening day speeches indicate leaders remain skeptical of the governor's pronouncements that state revenue collections are growing and the recession is ending. Their plan is to encourage job creation, continue education reforms, and promote a balanced budget amendment to the U-S Constitution. That program may have bipartisan support. Democratic Senator Jeremy Ring said, "I think they're all three important, significant issues that we have to address."