30 Mar Legislators Stand Firm Against Many of Gov. Scott’s Cutbacks (FL)

March 30, 2011

By: Gary Fineout
Source: The Gainesville Sun

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s budget gap now stands at roughly $3.75 billion after state economists on Friday forecast a slow recovery over the next year that will limit how much money legislators will have to balance spending with revenues.

While it will likely be weeks before lawmakers reach a final deal, legislators so far are standing firm against many of Gov. Rick Scott’s ideas on how to fill that gap, including slashing spending on public schools by 10 percent.

The early signs are that Scott’s proposal to cut taxes by nearly $2 billion also remains a tough sell to lawmakers who spent this week mulling budget cuts. Scott’s plan to win control over a $300 million pot of money he could use to lure jobs to Florida also is in doubt.

Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, the Senate budget chief, said that the Senate has set aside some money for tax cuts and for Scott’s economic development plans.

But it’s "nowhere near $2 billion," he said, declining to say if this meant legislators plan to ignore the governor’s budget plan completely.

"It’s still early in the process," Alexander said.

Scott issued his austere budget at a raucous tea party event last month in Eustis, far away from the Capitol. He said that his proposals to cut state spending while also cutting property taxes and corporate incomes taxes were needed in order to help jump-start the state’s economy.

The governor’s budget cuts called for a $1.75 billion reduction in money for the day-to-day operations of school districts because Scott said he did not want to replace federal stimulus money that the state is losing later this year.

But he suggested that part of those cuts could be offset by federal money schools received last fall and by forcing teachers to pay 5 percent toward the cost of their pensions.

So far, however, neither the House nor the Senate is ready to cut as deeply as the governor suggested.

The Senate preliminary schools budget would drop funding by a little less than 2 percent, while the House proposed a 7.7 percent cut.

Neither included a mandate that schools districts roll back property taxes.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, chairman of the Senate budget panel that oversees school spending, said Scott’s deep cuts would risk undoing the improvements in the state’s schools since Republicans took control of state government.

"We have made tremendous gains the last 12 years; we intend to keep those gains," Simmons said. "One of the ways to do that during tough economic times is through as much funding as we can possibly do."

Scott also has run into resistance over his desire to have $304 million for incentives to attract new companies to Florida and expand existing businesses.

So far legislators are skeptical of giving Scott sole control over so much money. Lawmakers now get the final say over incentive money.

"The constitution’s pretty clear," said Senate President Mike Haridopolos. "It’s a check and balance. So I’m pretty sure we’re going to keep that check and balance."

Alexander, who has clashed with the Scott administration over whether it followed state law when it recently sold the state’s two airplanes, was more blunt, saying if Scott can’t deposit money from the sale of state assets in the "right account, why would we give him control over $300 million."

State lawmakers entered the 2011 session with a potential budget gap of $3.62 billion due largely to the loss of federal stimulus money and growth in the state’s Medicaid program.

State economists said the latest tax collection estimates pushed that gap up by nearly another $135 million.

State tax collections are growing, but economists say that Florida is having an "abnormally slow recovery."

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