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Monday, April 11, 2011

On the backs of the middle class, schools, the sick, disabled and poor the Florida budget is balanced

From the Palm Beach Post

TALLAHASSEE — A Florida Senate panel pushed $1.1 billion into its proposed state budget Thursday, powered by 3 percent of the paychecks of 655,000 teachers, police and firefighters enrolled in the state's retirement fund.

But the plan also sparked a rare revolt among ruling Republicans.

Several top senators said they could not support making government workers shoulder such a big share of balancing the state budget. Some even said they would support the plan only in Thursday's committee, but would insist on changes before negotiations with the House begin later this month.

"I think everybody needs to worry about fixing the budget," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach. "But there are many other places we can look...I think the economy will be hurt because people won't have the dollars they have now."

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, called the Senate proposal, "a huge, huge mistake."

The Senate Budget Committee approved a $69.8 billion state spending plan Thursday, relying heavily on the $1.1 billion from requiring government workers to help pay for their pension.

State workers haven't received a general pay raise since 2006, and many county and city employees told senators Thursday they also have endured pay freezes and countless rounds of layoffs.

Francesca Rector, a Deltona teacher, told the budget panel her husband lost his job a few years ago when his Chrysler dealership went under and she now expected to lose another $100 a month to retirement contributions.

"We're in the middle of bankruptcy now," Rector said. "We're really strapped."

Sharian Keys, a Port Orange teacher whose husband also is out of work, asked senators why lawmakers weren't looking at closing corporate tax exemptions or taking other steps to ease the burden on working families, with 1.1 million Floridians unemployed.

"They keep telling us we've got to suck it up," Keys said. "But who else is sucking up?"

Along with the employee pension payments, the Senate plan would close a lucrative early retirement program July 1. And the retirement age for police and firefighters also would rise under the proposal.

A similar pension approach is advancing in the House. But the Senate plan is now tougher, a reversal which stunned many union leaders who packed Thursday's hearing and who had earlier this session successfully lobbied Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat, into crafting a less costly plan.

But Ring is pushed out of the picture. Senate budget chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, unveiled Thursday's rewrite, acknowledging that the need for cash to close the state's projected $3.8 billion budget defict outweighed the niceties of pension policy.

"This issue is one important part of the budget," Alexander said.

He quickly drew support from Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who said public employees shouldn't expect immunity in a budget built on wide-ranging cuts to schools, health and human services and criminal justice programs.

"We can't spend more than we take in," said Gaetz, who also pointed out, "We've got to keep in mind the people we work for, the taxpayers of Florida."

The pension measure was approved 13-8 by the budget panel, with Altman and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey joining Democrats opposed. The $69.8 billion budget passed later on a 16-4 vote, with two Democrats, Sens. Gary Siplin of Orlando and Bill Montford of Tallahassee, joining ruling Republicans.

But even with the added pension cash, about $400 million more than the House budget provides, the Senate spending plan sharply scales back a host of government services.

Public schools, colleges and universities lose dollars. Hospitals and HMOs absorb 10 percent Medicaid rate reductions, almost 1,600 state jobs are eliminated, under the Senate plan. Another 5,000 corrections and probation officers are threatened by a Senate plan to privatize their work across 18 South and Central Florida counties, including Palm Beach and the Treasure Coast.

Gov. Rick Scott set the tone for budget-cutting in February, unveiling a plan that would cut $4.6 billion from state services, in part by imposing 5 percent employee contributions to the retirement system.

With his wholesale cuts, Scott found room in his budget for $2 billion in tax cuts, primarily for property-owners and corporations. But House and Senate leaders have said such reductions are unlikely.

Against the backdrop of eliminating government jobs and reducing benefits, Alexander said Thursday, "I think we'd have a very high threshold to reach to consider tax cuts."

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