By James Call
Tallahassee, FL – Florida lawmakers forged a budget in the dark of night. They agreed to a compromised spending plan shortly before midnight Monday. James Call reports lawmakers found more money for schools, the Everglades and projects in influential members' districts.
Paul Clark loves his job, loves the Democratic process, or enjoys being ignored by 95-percent of the people who walk past him while he holds signs for lawmakers to read.
"I'm back again, and this is my thank you sign from the library guy. I guess that's going to be my official title here, the Library Guy, huh? The Library Guy, you know, somebody who is passionate about their libraries and wanting to see the money."
Tuesday morning, Clark was declaring victory in his two-month quest to maintain funding for rural libraries in thirty-three counties. He would stand in the dark outside when lawmakes reported to work, holding a homemade Library Funding Report poster. He dogged them in the Senate Office Building, trailed them in the House Office Building and would wait patiently for them on the fourth floor to emerge from chambers. Clark used his vacation time to let lawmakers know he thought they should find $22-million to provide internet access to rural residents via public libraries, among other things
"They got restored to $21.2-million last night. They restored the whole thing. So, that was our minimum amount for the maintenance of effort, and with that amount we get $8-million a year from the federal government year after year...So that's why I felt like it was an appropriate thing to come out here one more time and let them know that we appreciate, from the library community, we appreciate what they've done."
This is the fourth straight year lawmakers had to close a shortfall between the money the state collects and what it must pay to maintain the current level of services. This year the gap is estimated at $3.2-billion. Melbourne Senator Mike Haridopolos is in line to be the Senate President next year. He said it is a tough budget year and lawmakers crafted a spending plan that has Florida living within its means.
"Our priorities were education, healthcare, creating jobs, and I think we hit each of those nails very well. We have a very good jobs bill that should help out, especially the space industry, and I think we are also looking at no education cuts to the K-12 classrooms, which is phenomenal. That's how you get through tough times. You prioritize."
That's what transportation policy makers will be doing if both chambers pass the spending plan and the governor signs it. The compromise pulls $160-million from a road trust fund to balance the budget. Industry experts say this will delay road projects and force thousands of layoffs. Others expected to be doing some prioritizing: university and college students. They will pay at least eight-percent more in tuition, and hospitals and nursing homes will take a seven-percent cut in reimbursements.
The House and Senate are scheduled to vote on the plan Friday. Then it is up to Governor Charlie Crist to sign it.
"Well, I think I have every year vetoed some of it. It just depends on what's in there."
Tuesday morning, Governor Crist was not alone in wondering what exactly was in it. The schedule called for the budget to be printed and delivered to lawmakers Tuesday afternoon. Then the clock would start on a 72-hour cooling off period before a vote can be taken.