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Less money leads to lower expectations

By James Call


Tallahassee, FL – With Florida again facing another budget shortfall in the range of $2 billion for next year, leading lawmakers are telling people to prepare for more budget cuts. The state has cut spending in each of the past six years. And now, James Call reports, people are expecting less from state government.

Economists say tax and fee collections hit a brick wall in August and lawmakers will have $2 billion less to spend when they write next year's budget.

Legislative leaders quickly said they intend to handle the shortfall the same way they have in the past. House Speaker Dean Cannon says the gap will be closed with spending cuts.

"We also are going to face a daunting budget deficit. We again will be faced with hard choices and good and worthwhile programs are going to have to absorb cuts."

The Great Recession hit Florida's service based economy earlier and harder than other states and is staying longer. About a million Floridians are out of work. The Speaker and President of the Florida Senate agree with Governor Rick Scott on how to get people back to work. Governor Scott wants Florida to be a low cost state to do business in. That means tax cuts and fewer regulations.

"If we do these things then we are going to see much more growth like that, because the rest of the country and the rest of the world are watching what we are doing. They are seeing we are putting ourselves in a position where they do not have to worry that if you do your business in Florida that there will be some new tax or some new assessment that they didn't do the right thing."

David Lawrence formed the Children's Movement last year. Three hundred thousand people have signed up as supporters. Before announcing the groups' 2012 Legislative Agenda, Lawrence and Tallahassee Senator Bill Montford read to a group of four-year-olds.

It's an appropriate setting for the two men. Montford was a teacher and high school principal before entering politics. Lawrence, retired publisher of the Miami Herald was instrumental in passing the constitutional amendment creating a free pre-K program. The Children's Movement has a list of five things it wants lawmakers to do to improve the life of children. The list comes with a price tag of 30 million dollars, one-tenth of what it cost to set up the statewide pre-K program seven years ago.

"If we can't get $30 million for some fundamentals in a 70 billion dollars budget then I surely would have to question how serious people are about children as a priority. I don't say that meanly. I'm saying that very straightforwardly and thoughtfully and softly and sensitively as I can. If you can't get that for children to make some fundamental changes then I worry about this."

In August the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a report documenting the plight of Florida's children. 2.4 million children are living in poverty. According to a Kids Count survey, Florida is 36th in children's health and well-being, sixth in teenage pregnancy, and last in funding for pre-K. It's the only state which has cut pre-K funding two years in a row.

That is the backdrop for the Children's Movement request of 30 million dollars to improve access to health care, teach parenting skills, and improve early learning programs. Lawrence says he's being realistic.

"We can get a road about anytime we want in Florida. You want a billion dollar tunnel underneath the water in Miami we got one going now with the people's money. You want a baseball stadium we'll get $300 million of the people's money. This is about children as a priority. That's what we are after these are five issues specific issues in a tough economic climate that you ought to say minimally I'm going to do this."

The Children's Movement $30 million dollar request out of a $70 billion state budget works out this way. If the state budget was $100 then the Children's Movement is asking for about a nickel. Senator Montford has spent most of his life educating children. He will be lobbying for the money.

"When you look at $30 million that is a lot of money but when you look at the total budget then that is possible."

After lawmakers begin the 2012 Legislative session in January they will get a report from state economists telling them how much they will have for next year's budget.