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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Florida Education Budget to be slashed

From the Orlando Sentinel

By By Aaron Deslatte and Jason Garcia, Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos signaled Wednesday that the Legislature was unlikely to take up any big-ticket tax cuts this year given Florida's $3.62-billion projected budget shortfall, and that education could also face big cuts to patch the holes.

Haridopolos said policymakers would be passing a budget this spring without any new tax increases, which means they would have to make dramatic cuts to health care and education to make the math work.

"I'm a big proponent of tax cuts. This is not a year I can push them through," the Brevard County lawmaker told reporters. And if Gov. Rick Scott wants to follow through on his campaign pledge of cutting taxes by $2 billion in his first year in office, Haridopolos said the governor would have to offset them with spending cuts.

Scott has proposed to cut school property taxes by $1.4 billion and make up the millage reduction with more state dollars. He also promised to start phasing out Florida's corporate income tax, which could cost another $700 million this year.

"I think Rick Scott has a lot of ideas. … Any tax cut proposal would have to be met with equal spending cuts to make it viable," Haridopolos said.

Although the governor has said the corporate tax cuts, in particular, could make it easier to lure new jobs to Florida, Haridopolos said he didn't think the state could afford it now.

"I don't see that happening at this point. It's something I'd like to do — but $3.5 billion short, and the problems with no tax increases, I don't see the math yet," Haridopolos said.

Scott, in a brief session with reporters at the state's emergency operations center, indicated he's not ready to abandon his proposed tax cuts.

"The way to get the state back to work is to cut property taxes and phase out the corporate income tax, and we're going to get that done," Scott said.

The Senate president said education could be particularly hard-hit in next year's budget, saying it may be impossible to make up for about $1.2 billion in expiring federal stimulus dollars that are financing core classroom programs.

"Whether you like to admit it or not, half our general revenue goes to education," Haridopolos told reporters. "It's a very difficult spot to be in, and the reason we wanted to make the adjustments to the class-size amendment" defeated by voters last fall.

Sen. David Simmons, chairman of the Senate's school budget committee, acknowledged that it would be difficult to maintain education spending at current-year levels. The Maitland Republican had previously expressed more optimism that school funding would be spared significant cuts.

"I think education funding, just like other areas, is going to be a real challenge," Simmons said. He added that school districts have had ample warning that the stimulus money was going to dry up. "Schools were told that … they ought to put it [stimulus funding] away and hold on to it."

Simmons said lawmakers are weighing several options to save money. Among them: Easing the restrictions imposed by the class-size amendment legislatively, such as by changing the definition of key terms such as "core classes."

Orange County schools — where stimulus money is worth about $400 for each student — have been bracing for grim budget news. "To hear that coming from them isn't surprising," said Scott Howat, Orange County schools' lobbyist, adding that a property-tax increase approved by voters last fall would help bridge the gap.

Senate budget-writers also signaled they would target health-care for the poor and elderly, and public employee pension contributions.

Senate Government Oversight Chairman Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, said he would unveil a proposal within weeks that could include requiring state and local government employees to contribute a percentage of their pay to their pensions and transition them to 401(k) style investment funds. Employees now make no contributions.

"While I think everything is on the table, I can pretty much feel confident that a core part of this discussion will be employee contributions," Ring said.

Meanwhile, the Senate's health-care budget chief, Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said Medicaid — and services ranging from nursing home care to AIDS drugs — could expect significant cuts to rein in Florida's $20 billion and growing Medicaid budget.

Scott has until early February to submit his budget proposal to the Legislature.

Aaron Deslatte can be reached at or 850-222-5564. Jason Garcia can be reached at or 407-420-5414.

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