BY MARY ELLEN KLAS, GARY FINEOUT AND MARC CAPUTO
Florida lawmakers will start to tackle the steepest budget cuts in state history Monday, the result of a chaotic economy and grim financial forecasts.
Ideas already on the table: squeezing more kids into classrooms; flat-lining school budgets; freezing environmental funding; cutting costs at hospitals and nursing homes; charging more for driver's licenses and court fees.
And then there's the list of programs that won't see the light of day because legislators must write a 2008-09 budget that's 16 percent lower -- $4.6 billion -- than the $72 billion budget they passed last year.
The House is likely to delay the governor's climate-change initiatives and teacher merit pay and postpone a plan to renew Florida Forever, the program that purchases land for conservation. The Senate is looking at cutting back on FCAT tests and exams to certify new teachers.
And all talk of more property-tax cuts is off the table as Republican leaders turn their attention to the budget. Instead, they are steering headlines to more rabble-rousing issues that appeal to their conservative base -- such as allowing employees to bring concealed weapons to work and arguing that intelligent design should be taught as a scientific theory in the classroom along with evolution.
It's all made for a massive change of course for legislators accustomed to constant growth in the fourth most populous state. Now, for the first time in recent memory, the state faces a significantly lower budget because it will collect less tax in the coming fiscal year that begins July 1 than it did this year, despite an increase in population.
''These are more than cuts. There's going to be bleeding. This is deep,'' said Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who chairs the Senate's criminal justice budget committee. ``We have to prioritize the must-haves from the like-to-haves.''
A LONG LAUNDRY LIST
A few likely losers: hospitals, nursing-home providers and anyone scraping by to help the 2.3 million on Medicaid; public defenders, prosecutors and judges who say they're in crisis as crimes and court filings increase and staff sizes decrease; teachers, who will see lawmakers try to weaken the class-size caps amendment.
Possible winners: Road builders and rail-line companies stand to earn billions in economic-stimulus money if the Senate gets its way. Private prison operators and prison construction companies stand to gain as the state prison system -- now near capacity -- builds two lockups yearly for the next five years as the incarcerated population nears 100,000.
''When all you've ever dealt with are flush budgets, it's a whole different mind-set when you have to cut,'' said Rep. Ron Saunders, a Key West Democrat who was chairman of the House budget committee in 1991-92, the last time the state faced a budget deficit near this magnitude. ``This may be a three-year downturn, and that's the kind of thing you can't make minimum cuts to. It's going to require a major budget overhaul.''
The laundry list of cuts, however, is far from ready, and there's no agreement yet between House and Senate leaders. What both sides appear prepared to do are across-the-board cuts imposed on every agency.
Sources close to both the House and Senate say they will order committees next week to prepare cuts of between 6 and 10 percent below the already-reduced budgets of this year.
''It's going to be a percentage of reduction, and those reductions will be, for the most part, across the board,'' said Senate Republican Leader Dan Webster of Orlando.
Senate budget chief Lisa Carlton showed budget committee members a sheet detailing how drastic the cuts could be. The cuts amount to $2.59 billion and include: a $1.4 billion cut from education, $700 million from health programs, and nearly $400 million from prisons and juvenile justice.
''I wanted the appropriations chairs to see the magnitude that the drop in revenues can have,'' Carlton said.
Last week, lawmakers laid out more than 50 potential cuts to the state's Medicaid program that could save hundreds of millions of dollars. The options included freezing or cutting reimbursement rates to hospitals and HMOs that treat poor patients, eliminating the Medically Needy program and reducing the number of pregnant women who get Medicaid coverage.
The Senate is talking about saving $316 million by freezing the Medicaid rate increase taking effect in July for hospitals, nursing homes and other health providers. The House is considering a deeper freeze that would save $340 million.
Meanwhile, universities, which have already cut back on freshman admissions and face another $200 million cut, are talking about laying off professors and shutting the door to transfers from community college.
Schools, from kindergarten to high school, aren't likely to be spared, either, though House leaders say they will protect schools from the $179 million in cuts that should result from the property-tax cut voters approved in January.
State Education Commissioner Eric Smith told lawmakers last week school testing could face cuts, including eliminating the ninth-grade reading and math portions of the FCAT and reducing the number of teachers who review the test.
There are alternatives to cuts, but not much support. For example, a plan to permit more taxable gambling appears dead in the House.
Democrats want lawmakers to raise more money through closing tax ''loopholes'' and by tapping state reserves for specific purposes such as low-income housing or the environment.
But Senate leaders say raiding trust funds isn't easy.
''All of those trust funds have a constituency base,'' Carlson said. ``They are not going to want those dollars put somewhere else.''