Published Online: January 28, 2010

Fla. Legislative Leaders Cool to Gov.'s Budget Plan

The top two leaders of the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature on Wednesday said Gov. Charlie Crist may be too optimistic in calling for higher public school spending in another austere budget year.

The Senate's Democratic leader, meanwhile, called Crist's proposed corporate tax cut "kinda insane."

The lawmakers all cited an estimated gap of $1.1 billion to $3.2 billion between the state's anticipated revenues and spending needed to pay for critical programs including schools and Medicaid, which has been growing as more people find themselves without jobs or private health insurance.

House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, and Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said they cannot bank on lawmakers approving a deal to expand Seminole Indian gambling, which Crist wants to pay for most of a $179 increase for each public school student in the budget year beginning July 1. That would be an increase of 2.61 percent in per pupil spending.

Crist, who's also in a tight primary race for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination, and legislative leaders from both major parties talked about the budget and other issues at the annual Associated Press Florida Legislative Planning Session.

The meeting gives reporters and editors from across the state a chance to hear from officials and statewide candidates before the regular legislative session that begins in March.

The governor pointed out state revenues are expected to go up during the next budget year — by about $2 billion — for the first time in four years, but lawmakers noted that's still not enough to keep up with growing expenses.

Crist began releasing elements of his budget proposals last Friday and will roll out the complete package this Friday.

The governor has proposed a $500 million increase for public schools for a record $22.7 billion but most of the new money — $433 million — would come from a compact with the Seminoles that a House committee already has rejected.

"You know I'm an optimist," Crist said. "This session hasn't even started yet and I think we have an opportunity to get that money."

That may be, but Cretul said it likely would go into reserves, not the school budget, if a deal with the tribe can be reached.

"We're not expecting to build that in our budget," Cretul said in an interview. "It's a little risky."

Atwater agreed, telling the journalists that Crist's plan was "a bit optimistic," but he said lawmakers will keep trying to reach a deal.

Crist on Tuesday proposed giving corporations a $57 million tax break that he said would help boost the economy and increase employment although the maximum savings for any one business would be capped at $10,000.

"I think that's kinda insane," said Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson of Tallahassee. "That's going to take more money from the budget. These proposals are going to cause even greater hardship."

Atwater said he agreed with the principle behind Crist's proposal but that lawmakers also will consider other options for achieving the same goal.

The GOP legislative leaders said Crist also may be overly optimistic by including no pay reductions or layoffs for state employees in his budget recommendations. Crist vetoed a a 2 percent pay cut for about 28,000 state workers last year.

"I'm sure there will be continued discussions in the areas of employees, benefits, salaries, etc.," Cretul said. "We've gotta look at it."

Atwater similarly said avoiding layoffs and pay cuts would be "a high bar for us to clear."

Lawson and House Democratic leader Franklin Sands of Weston said lawmakers should consider tax increases aimed at big corporations and wealthy Floridians who have received billions in tax relief during recent years such as repeal of a tax on stocks and bonds.

The Republicans, though, stuck with previous promises of no tax increases in 2010, an election year.

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