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Budget Debates Set

By James Call

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-893079.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Florida Senate and House budget proposals are separated by more than two-billion dollars. The Senate's $69-billion dollar spending plan counts on Congress picking up an additional $880-million in Medicaid costs.

It's known around the Capitol as the FMAP fix. The stimulus plan increased the federal share of Medicaid costs. Ways and Means Chairman J.D. Alexander expects Congress to continue paying the higher rate next year. That would free up hundreds of millions of dollars to spend elsewhere.

"There is possibility that the U.S. House may take this up once they return from Easter break. I would hope they will take it up sooner than later. There are a lot of states, including Florida, that are currently in session, and it is material to all of our budgets. With that, I would like to recognize each of the committee chairs to give a brief summary of the individual committee bills."

The 25-member Ways and Means Committee spent more than five hours putting $880-million back into the budget. Senators proposed preventing or reducing cuts to hospitals, nursing homes, the environment and other state services. The library system, which was expected to lose $22-million, gets $15-million under the contingency plan.

"We were able to, through these amendments, and I believe when you examine them, to take the rough edges off most of those reductions. To be honest, I thought the exercise was productive."

The Florida Senate will debate the Ways and Means budget proposal on the floor next week. It contains bitter medicine for a variety of groups. It opens a privatized prison in the Panhandle, putting 639 Department of Corrections employees out of work, cuts the budget of court clerks by five-percent, which may force layoffs of hundreds of county employees, increases university tuition by eight-percent, and stiffens the requirements for Bright Futures scholarships.

"Today, I voted against a lot of things."

Democratic Senator Dan Gelber, a candidate for Attorney General, says the budget proposal is riddled with short term fixes.

"But mostly I voted because I felt like the budget still does not adequately fund the health care concerns of the state and, most importantly, public education burdens we have. We just aren't doing it. We have a down economy, and in a down economy people seek higher education because they instinctively know that is going to get them a job. The last thing we should be doing in a down economy is stiff-arming young people who want to improve their workforce skills and close the doors of a university or community college."

The House budget proposal does not include the additional money from Congress, or $400-million from a Seminole gambling compact. The House does include a three-percent pay cut for state employees, while the Senate would have employees contribute to a retirement plan.

Both chambers are expected to vote on their budget proposals next week. That will give lawmakers the month of April to work out the differences. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn April 30th.