Sunday, September 2, 2007

Lawmakers get creative with plans to trim budget

By Jim Ash


Welcome to budget-cutting Tallahassee style, where the economy is limping, the state revenue is $1.1 billion short of its current spending plan, and nervous agency chiefs are getting creative.

The Department of Management Services, the state's chief housekeeping agency, says it can slash its budget by canceling a massive telephone contract.

Taxpayers would end up paying more when state and local agencies negotiate individual contracts, but DMS could magically wipe $48 million off its books.

''I want to clarify that in some instances, trust-fund reductions may lead to further increases down the road,'' DMS Secretary Linda South warned lawmakers when she submitted the paperwork.

Lawmakers will have to rely on more than sleight of hand to make cuts called for in a special session that has not been formally announced but is expected to begin Sept. 18.

State economists last week projected state tax revenues will be $2.5 billion less than expected next year. That means more cuts in the regular session next spring and little room for shifting budget columns and papering over expenditures.

Lawmakers assured department heads that the $71 billion-plus state budget would have to be cut by slightly more than 4 percent in the special session, not quite as painful as the 10-percent cuts Gov. Charlie Crist ordered them to propose as contingencies.

How to spread the pain?
The House and Senate remain divided on their basic approaches. The Senate insists that across-the-board cutting is the fairest way to spread the pain. The House wants to target its cuts to preserve the most essential services.

Crist wants to avoid education-spending cuts. Some legislative leaders have vowed to preserve the medically needy program that helps pay bills for the sick and the poor. Others have promised not to touch the Department of Juvenile Justice.

No votes were taken in last week's series of marathon budget workshops, and the powerful Republican committee chairs did not tip their hands about which way they will proceed.

Democrats expect most of the decisions to be made by the Republican leaders behind closed doors and asked at least to be kept appraised.

''We'll see that you get the list,'' Dean Cannon, chairman of the House Economic Expansion and Infrastructure Council, assured West Palm Beach Democrat Susan Bucher as the panel prepared to adjourn last week.

Meanwhile, agency heads will continue pleading their case to skeptical lawmakers eager to separate real from imagined cuts.

Death Row attorneys said last week their budget is too lean for a cut, but they can manufacture one - if the Legislature simply agrees to count $350,000 that comes in every year from the federal courts as new money.

''If we lose people, we are really going to have a problem. We are going to have a substantial problem,'' Neal Dupree, a capital collateral regional counsel, told a Senate budget panel.

Attorney General Bill McCollum can shrink his budget $10,000 by cutting funding for the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami, a group that hasn't existed for three years. Every year, the unspent money simply goes back into state coffers.

Under orders from Gov. Charlie Crist to identify 10 percent in potential savings in every department, agency chiefs presented their proposals last week to legislative committees. Some lawmakers were skeptical.

''I think some agencies are taking this very seriously,'' said Rep. Rich Glorioso, a conservative Republican budget hawk from Plant City. ''Some are just going through the exercise.''

'I don't see how you can call that a budget cut'
Glorioso singled out a proposal by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to save $22,000 by asking someone else to administer a school crossing-guard-training program. The program would still be paid for by a $91,000 state grant from the Department of Transportation.

''I don't see how you can call that a budget cut,'' Glorioso said after an administrator made her presentation to the House Economic Expansion and Infrastructure Council. ''That's just reducing your responsibility.''

''The cost savings could potentially result if another agency or private entity that does the same type of work could take it on at no cost,'' said department spokeswoman Ann Nucatola.

Agencies have identified about $52 million that they think can be shed without significantly reducing services, a drop in the bucket. Meanwhile, agency chiefs will continue to sweat the details as creatively as possible to preserve as many dollars and vital services as possible.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning told the House Economic Expansion and Infrastructure Council that he could save $994,568 by moving records from the state-owned R.L. Gray Building, where the rent is $17.18 per square foot, to another state facility where the rent would be only $5.11 per square foot.

Browning acknowledged to reporters after his presentation that the move would merely mean that the state is charging itself that much less money.

''You're sharp,'' he told reporters.

Frustrated by the exercise, Browning smiled and refused to predict whether lawmakers would approve another of his proposals, to generate $300,000 in savings by redirecting candidate filing fees that now go to the Democratic and Republican parties.

''We were told to think creatively,'' he said.

No comments: