Government

Senate Moves $69.8 Billion Budget

Version is $3.3 billion more than House
By: Gray Rohrer | Posted: April 1, 2011 3:55 AM

The Florida Senate is on track to pass a $69.8 billion budget for the next fiscal year, as its appropriations bill moved through the Budget Committee Thursday. The Senate version is $3.3 billion more than the House's, which passed through that chamber's budget committee Wednesday.

 

Despite objections and pleas from state workers, teachers and Democrats, the bill moved through the committee in a 16-4 vote, picking up two votes -- Democrats Bill Montford of Tallahassee and Gary Siplin of Orlando -- with all Republicans voting in favor.

 

The budget calls for a 3 percent contribution from state workers to their pensions, which brought out howls of protest from about 40 speakers, who also decried plans to end the Deferred Option Retirement Program, close out cost-of-living adjustments after July 1, and end defined benefit plans by moving new hires into defined contribution plans akin to a 401(k) retirement plan.

 

Some senators lamented the cuts, but said they are needed in order to fill the state's $3.8 million budget deficit.

 

"The fact is, we got a real arithmetic problem here -- we can't spend more than we take in. Everybody is being hurt in this budget. Everybody is making a sacrifice," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

 

The pension reform drew particular ire from teachers, some of whom are still reeling over the battle for the merit pay bill, who said the contribution amounts to cuts to their salaries, which will decimate schools. Public school funding also witnesses $1.6 billion in cuts in the Senate budget, or about $423 per student.

 

"These are decisions that will impact our lives. Budget reductions will cause massive layoffs for school employees. Basically, if it's not tested, it's not going to be taught. You are cutting the salaries of all public-service workers by 3 percent, most of which have not had a pay raise for the last three or four or five years," said Andy Ford, a representative of the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

 

But senators noted that the pension reductions are vital to the overall budget. School district employees make up nearly half of the 655,000 members of the Florida Retirement System, and the pension reforms are forecast to save $678 million in the schools budget, which otherwise would be cut.

 

"This is one of the lynchpins of the entire budget, so what we do here today really portends for the rest of the budget process," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.

 

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, has been hesitant to declare any tax cuts in the budget, indicating his preference for focusing on spending cuts first. But the committee was able to find some tax cuts in the water management districts.

 

The committee voted unanimously to take greater control over the state's five WMDs, all of which currently have large reserves, by enabling annual legislative reviews of their budgets and approval of their millage rates. The measure, which is not included in the House budget, also reduced their ad valorem taxes by $210.5 million.

 

Despite the two Democratic votes, the budget debate highlighted the two parties' philosophical differences in their approach to government.

 

Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, urged the committee to close corporate tax "loopholes" and find ways to raise revenue instead of making the necessary cuts to balance the budget.

 

"I believe there are many sources of revenue that we have not taken a look at," Rich said.

 

For Gaetz, however, those "loopholes" amount to little more than a tax that will come out of the pockets of citizens.

 

"If that were to occur (the closing of loopholes), that money would not be found in a pillow under the bed, that money would have to be extracted from our taxpayers," Gaetz said.

 

Reach Gray Rohrer at grohrer@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.


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