Quiet OK for dramatic trims to state budget

Jun 12, 2008

Joe Follick


TALLAHASSEE With a light veto touch and a closed door, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a $66 billion state budget Wednesday with a nearly 10 percent cut in spending that will affect schools, hospitals and all parts of state government.

In an abrupt shift from last year, Crist vetoed only three items in the budget. One had already been vetoed in a previous bill, a $250 million plan to attract private property insurance companies to the state. Only two other projects in Lake and Miami-Dade counties that cost a total of $1.1 million were vetoed.

Last year, Crist vetoed dozens of items that cost nearly $460 million, the highest amount in state history.

Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit group, had previously identified 132 budget items costing $110 million that had circumvented legislative review and were ripe for veto.

"It's disappointing that the governor allowed so many questionable appropriations to remain in the budget while core services provided to the people of Florida are being cut across the board," said TaxWatch president Dominic Calabro.

"There were more than $100 million worth of projects that should have been vetoed, and there is only one person in Florida who had the constitutional ability and responsibility to do so."

But some lawmakers said Crist was wise to allow the millions of dollars in spending on various infrastructure projects around the state such as water plants and road construction.

"When your economy is in a downturn, sometimes government spending can be helpful," said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, a former House budget chairman.

Crist was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Breaking tradition, he did not sign the bill in a public event. Instead, he posted his veto list and comments online.

Crist spokeswoman Erin Isaac said the lack of vetoes and weeks of questioning about the budget left little reason for a public event Wednesday.

House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, saw an alternative explanation.

"This is not a budget that warrants celebration," Gelber said, ripping the GOP-dominated Legislature for maintaining tax cuts for the state's businesses and investors. "No one should be uncorking champagne today other than, perhaps, those wealthy, well-connected special interests who were spared the harmful impact of the budget cuts that everyday Floridians will have to suffer."

Lawmakers passed the budget in May. The nearly 10 percent cut from last year's $72 billion budget was the largest in decades, and few areas of state government will be spared.

For the second consecutive year, state workers will get no raise. Hundreds of jobs, especially in the criminal justice system, will be cut. Hospitals and nursing homes will receive nearly a half-billion dollars less in Medicaid payments. University tuition will rise 6 percent and public school funding will drop about 2 percent, or $130 per student.

The reason: Tax revenues have plummeted with the souring of the real estate and construction markets. GOP leaders never considered tax increases this year, though they did raise dozens of fees on everything from boating registration to filing court documents.

There is little optimism among state leaders that the economy will improve any time soon. The last indicator came in May, when state economists said that sales tax revenues for Florida were below expectations and that the overall revenue had dropped nearly 8 percent since last year.

House budget chairman Ray Sansom, R-Destin, said he expects a similarly tight budget next year when he becomes House speaker. Lawmakers built in a provision this year that allows Crist to use money in the "budget stabilization fund" to make up any revenue shortfalls over the coming months.

Sansom said Floridians expect lawmakers to cut spending and avoid tax increases.

"We have positioned ourselves to meet the demands of Florida and still make the reductions," he said. "We made some tough decisions."

While acknowledging a nearly 2 percent cut in K-12 spending, Sansom said that comes after a nearly 40 percent increase in spending over the past five years.

"Less than 2 percent in one year isn't doomsday," he said. "They're still doing very well."

And he blamed the 2002 voter-approved constitutional amendment to limit class sizes for forcing school districts to spend money on construction rather than teacher salaries and other expenses.

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