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State Budget: Let the Debate Begin

By James Call


Tallahassee, FL – Governor Charlie Crist looks at an increase in tax and fees collection and sees a rebounding economy. Although economists say Florida will start the fiscal year with a multi-billion dollar deficit, the governor wants lawmakers to increase spending by almost $3-billion.

Crist began cutting the state budget about as soon as he moved into the governor's mansion. In his first three years, the state reduced spending by about six-billion dollars. Now, the governor wants lawmakers to spend more money on schools and the environment, and cut taxes for small businesses.

Florida's real estate-based economy is beginning to stir. Home sales are up about 30-percent. That is bringing an increase in real estate and sales tax collections.

"For the first time since I've been governor, we actually have more money coming into the state treasury than less. It's about two-billion dollars more. It's about two-billion dollars more that we can anticipate. That certainly helps us fill the gap significantly."

Crist concedes his plan is based on optimism. He can afford to work with rosy projections because the governor makes only budget recommendations. Lawmakers have to be more skeptical because the Constitution makes them balance the spending plan.

The budget process begins in the House, where Speaker Larry Cretul wants a line by line analysis of state expenditures. He concedes it is a tedious chore, but Cretul says he's a methodical man and he wants a dollar for dollar count of how the state spends money.

"The way our Florida families and businesses are doing through these difficult times, they are tightening their belts. They are changing their plans whether that is sending their kids to a specific college or perhaps that vacation they had planned for several years is no longer on the radar screen. They are doing less, and I believe government must do so as well."

Economists say the state will begin the fiscal year July first with a gap as wide as three-billion dollars between what the state collects and how much it will have to spend to continue to provide the current level of services. Republican leaders like the governor and Senate president have ruled out tax increases. Crist is proposing about $100-million in tax cuts. That idea immediately drew opposition from Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson.

"I think that is kind of insane. I think that is an insane approach for where we stand right now. You know, you've got to understand, that is going to take more money from the budget. These proposals will cause greater hardship."

In the Senate, Lawson leads the opposition and can mostly only protest. The GOP's 26-14 majority means Democratic votes are needed only when Senate rules require a two-thirds vote. However, the governor's Republican allies in the Legislature are cautious when talking about the governor's proposal.

"I think that will be a very difficult commitment to make. I think it will be very difficult to hold to that," said Senate President Jeff Atwater.

Atwater was specifically addressing layoffs of state employees, which Crist says can be avoided. However, the Senate president used the same tone when talking about the governor's proposal for education and tax cuts. The Crist spending plan relies on about $1-billion in additional federal money for Medicaid that Congress has not yet approved, about a half-billion from a gambling compact that the Legislature has yet to agree to, and $4-billion in federal stimulus money, which lawmakers refer to as non-recurring revenue.

"It is realistic. It is a budget that is in balance. It is a budget that cuts taxes, that invests in Florida's future and protects the environment. I think it is a common sense budget, and I think the members of the House and members of the Senate are common sense people," said Crist.

The governor's budget recommendations traditionally serve as the starting point for the lawmakers' work. The House and Senate will convene March 2nd for a 60-day legislative session. Their only requirement is to pass a balanced budget.