Tallahassee, FL – Florida lawmakers assembled in Tallahassee Tuesday for this year's spring Legislative Session. James Call reports the Senate President told lawmakers to expect a difficult time trying to balance a state budget while facing a multi-billion dollar shortfall in tax collections. James Call reports Senator Mike Haridopolos' 15-minute speech quoted Matthew, Edmund Burke and Winston Churchill but featured few applause lines.
The Senate President doubts if there will be any tax cuts this year.
"If anyone can show me how realistically we can feed the increasing multitude with even fewer fish and less bread than I will gladly follow him."
Amidst the pomp and pageantry of an opening day, the "Great Recession" remained at center stage. Senate President Mike Haridopolos welcomed members back toTallahassee with a speech comparing Florida's money problems to the Allies battle against the Nazis. The state's current budget is 3.3 billion dollars smaller than it was four years ago. Before lawmakers leave Tallahassee in May they will have to cut at least another four-billion dollars from the spending plan for next year. Haridopolos concedes it will be a difficult task.
"And we will cut billions from the state budget at a time when unfunded mandates from the federal government and each of our citizens demand more, not less. So if it is true that adversity builds character, then everyone of you can count on being a much better person by the time we leave in 60 days."
Economists say sluggish tax and fee collections are coming in about 3.6- billion dollars less than what is needed to maintain current spending levels. And state leaders say another billion dollars needs to be placed in reserve to protect the state's credit rating. Leading lawmakers expect every silo of state spending and every service government offers to have fewer dollars next year. One way the Florida senate will try to rein in spending is by reforming Medicaid, health care for the poor and catastrophically sick. The plan is to move more patients into managed care plans.
"This is a massive undertaking. A real paradigm shift. But coming to grips with Medicaid is a duty we can not shift. The increasing Medicaid population, rising health care costs and unfunded federal mandates has created a black hole that will swallow the state budget sooner than later if we do not act promptly."
A decade ago Florida lawmakers went on a tax cutting spree; reducing fees and taxes by about 16-billion dollars during the Bush administration. Governor Rick Scott is seeking almost another two billion in cuts as a way to stimulate economic growth. And although Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon say they look forward to working with the new governor they also say they are focused first on cutting spending and producing a balanced budget.
"And taxes have no more of a ruthless enemy than I. And whether we can actually reduce taxes at the present time in a responsible way remains to be seen. If anyone can show me how realistically we can feed the increasing multitude with even fewer fish and less bread than I will gladly follow him."
Haridopolos weaved Biblical allusions, at least six, Shakespeare, Edmund Burke and Winston Churchill in a 15-minute speech outlining the monetary challenges lawmakers face. He said they may be standing at the beginning of the end of an economic downturn. Afterward, former state senator Al Lawson noted the speech had few applause lines. Lawson represented Tallahassee in the Legislature for 29 years before being termed-limited out last November.
"There wasn't many applauds in the senate, for the senate president speech for the first time. I guess there is a lot of mixed emotions. And I think the focus was so on health care and so forth. This affects a lot of people in the state and a lot of people around this area so, a big change is coming to the system so, you know, [it] causes a lot of heartburn."