Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Floridians feel squeeze of state's $66 billion budget

John Kennedy and Aaron Deslatte

Tallahassee Bureau

July 6, 2008


Florida's prison system is shedding nearly 400 probation officers, prison teachers and chaplains.

The Department of Community Affairs, which polices growth, is laying off planners, shuttering its office in the Florida Keys and predicting it will take longer for local governments to get needed approvals of redevelopment plans.

Hundreds of other government workers -- from greyhound-track judges to college professors -- are headed to the unemployment line.

And the Agency for Persons with Disabilities is trimming funding for everything from transportation for disabled Floridians to in-home-care speech therapy. About 35,000 people with cerebral palsy, autism and mental retardation will see Medicaid service cuts totaling $43.5 million.

These are just some of the consequences of the bare-bones $66 billion state budget that took effect July 1. And almost everyone thinks things will get worse before they get better.

"I've never seen budget cuts this deep, or this mean," said John Askew, president of Sunrise ARC, which provides services to 250 developmentally disabled clients, mostly in Lake County. A cut of $400,000 from his $4.1 million budget, he said, already has forced the closure of one of the organization's six group homes and an adult training center.

"This really is causing a lot of disruption and worry for the families of our clients," Askew added. "And I'm afraid this is not the end."

Forecast to consider deficit

State officials agree.

Even though the new budget is $6 billion below the one that Gov. Charlie Crist signed into law in 2007, revenue continues to erode. State tax collections fell a combined $263.9 million below anticipated levels in March, April and May. June figures are expected to be about $100 million short as the state sinks into recession, economists said.

"We earlier had a lot of optimism, but that's waning," said Amy Baker, coordinator for the Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research, one of the state's financial forecasters.

Baker and other state economists plan to meet early next month to revise this year's forecast and could declare that a deficit is looming. Florida's Constitution prohibits the state from running on red ink, so Crist would be forced to take action.

"If need be, we will do that," Crist said.

Reserves here and there

Seeking to avoid a grim, budget-cutting session while they're running for re-election, legislators earlier this year gave Crist authority to use half of the state's budget-stabilization fund -- or about $700 million -- to patch holes in the 2008-09 spending plan.

If that money is depleted, Crist could then tap as much as $1 billion from the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund, usually used to finance health-care programs, to bring the budget back into balance.

But lawmakers eventually may decide to avoid draining reserves -- which might be needed next year -- and simply cut spending. Last year, the Legislature slashed $1.5 billion in two rounds of budget-cutting. A special session after this fall's elections could be called to further reduce this year's version.

"We're figuring a special session to cut more is probable," Askew said.

Not vital? Not funded

Across Florida, budget woes abound, compounded in many communities by property-tax cuts resulting from Amendment 1, approved by voters in January.

Cities and counties are scaling back tree trimming, pothole repairs and other projects deemed not vital. Fourth of July fireworks in some communities were kept alive only through private contributions.

"People are looking at new and creative ways to stretch dollars," said Cragin Mosteller, spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties.

The biggest hit will be felt in classrooms this fall. Last month, a state Department of Education survey found that Florida's 67 school districts are considering laying off more than 3,600 teachers and staff -- including more than 1,000 teachers just in Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties.

Effects still rippling

State Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who oversees the transportation and economic-development areas of the budget, said the reaction from local communities so far has been muted -- mainly because the combined wallop of reduced state- and local-government spending will take several months to trickle down.

He has heard recently from some teachers and probation officers getting laid off and has spoken with a brother and sister who have spina bifida and are losing their in-home services.

"There's definitely going to be some tightness, and people will feel some pain," he said. "But I think it'll happen later rather than sooner."

John Kennedy can be reached at jkennedy@orlandosentinel.com. Aaron Deslatte can be reached at adeslatte@orlandosentinel.com. Both also can be reached at 850-222-5564.

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