Government

Scott Budget Claims Fade Before Senate Panel

By: John Kennedy News Service of Florida | Posted: February 10, 2011 3:55 AM

Jerry McDaniel

Budget Director Jerry McDaniel | Photo: Gray Rohrer

Some of Gov. Rick Scott’s most vaunted spending claims faded Wednesday, as the Republican chief executive’s budget director endured three hours of withering questioning from the Senate Budget Committee.

Jerry McDaniel acknowledged Scott’s touted $4.6 billion in budget cuts was actually closer to $3 billion, with the governor removing both state university tuition and spending by the state’s clerks of courts from his budget calculus.

McDaniel also may have dampened Scott’s defense of his plan to cut $3.3 billion in education spending, which includes at least a $298 average cut in per-pupil spending.

“Unfortunately, I think there will be some teachers without jobs, thanks to this policy decision,” McDaniel told senators.

A day after three House committees generally gave poor-to-middling grades to Scott’s $65.9 billion spending blueprint, it was the Senate’s turn Wednesday to challenge key portions of the plan. Scott wants to cut 8,681 jobs across state agencies, overhaul Medicaid, and pull in $1.3 billion by making 655,000 government employees contribute 5 percent of their pay to pension plans, and hand out $1.7 billion in tax cuts.

Scott also would pull $8.5 billion from 124 state trust funds, spreading the cash across other government services.

Lawmakers aired a wide range of questions about details of Scott’s spending plan. But they also sought to gauge the governor’s willingness to compromise on budget provisions – especially after Scott adviser Mary Ann Carter warned budget chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and others at a governor’s mansion dinner this week that “the nation is watching” the Legislature’s treatment of the spending plan.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who campaigned for Scott last fall as Florida Republican Party chairman, asked McDaniel directly: “How flexible is the governor on this?”

McDaniel offered some assurance that his boss might be willing to deal with lawmakers, saying Scott, “is not suffering under the idea that everything we proposed here is going to pass.”

Scott and lawmakers are struggling to close a budget shortfall of at least $3.6 billion, as Florida endures a fourth straight year of drum-tight finances stemming from the recession. House and Senate leaders have said budget cuts are certain – especially with federal stimulus dollars now gone. But lawmakers from both parties are questioning Scott’s approach – and his math.

While Scott eliminates traditional state funding for private colleges and universities, he managed to earmark $1.8 million for one such school – the historically black Edward Waters College near the legislative district formerly represented by his lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said it wasn’t fair to help one school while struggling schools such as Bethune-Cookman University and Florida Memorial College were zeroed out of Scott’s spending plan.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, challenged Scott’s plan to cut the Corrections Department by $82.4 million, eliminating 1,690 jobs and closing two prisons, part of an effort to offset an 8,000-bed surplus throughout Florida’s prison system.

Fasano, though, said he didn’t think savings from closing prisons was worthwhile. “You’re doing away with 619 jobs to save $2.8 million a year,” he said. “Are we benefiting from that?”

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston raised similar questions about Scott’s plan to save close to $1 billion by limiting the state’s Medically Needy program mostly to children and pregnant women, barring thousands of transplant patients and those with catastrophic illnesses from getting costly prescription drug coverage.

“I just don’t see how people will survive,” Rich said.

Jane Johnson, another Scott budget official, tried to soften legislators’ take on the change, saying the Medically Needy proposal would not be enacted until 2012-13. Like the governor’s support for a sweeping plan to steer 2.7 million Medicaid patients into managed care, saving an anticipated $1.2 billion next year, the Medically Needy change also would need federal government approval.

Scott’s proposal to require 5 percent employee contributions to the Florida Retirement System also drew pushback from Republican Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs, who warned that with budget cuts already threatening layoffs, the payroll standard could also cost teachers $2,000 a year.

Instead, Simmons said the governor should consider supporting his proposal to reduce by half the state’s 10 percent payroll contribution to new employees in the FRS, while also revising his property-tax cut. Simmons said an across-the-board rollback will not spur the economy – since many homeowners are already paying low property taxes under the state’s Save Our Homes cap. Cuts, though, could be targeted toward new homebuyers, Simmons said.

“I ask you to look at that as a solution so we are not reducing the take-home pay of our teachers,” Simmons said.

Alexander, the Senate’s budget chief, was cautious in his initial review of Scott’s spending plan. He conceded that lawmakers opposed many elements in the new governor’s approach – but that the Legislature would clearly be forced to enact deep reductions of its own this spring.

“I can tell you that there isn’t any part of our budget that is sacrosanct,” Alexander said.

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