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Scott joins chorus of GOP governors demanding gridlocked Congress avert defense cuts

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott joined a chorus of fellow GOP governors in a contentious partisan squabble over federal lawmakers’ failure to avert $110 billion in mandatory spending cuts to defense and domestic programs set to kick in in January.

Scott sent a letter today to U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., asking them to thwart an estimated $500 billion 10-year reduction in defense spending. The automatic cuts, known as the “sequester,” are part of last year’s deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. Unless a special congressional deficit reduction supercommittee came up with a way to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion, the budget would face an automatic cut of that amount over a decade, split evenly between defense and domestic programs. (more…)

DCF to axe 500 jobs, with three mental hospitals likely to absorb bulk of cuts

Monday, May 23rd, 2011 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott unsuccessfully tried to privatize Florida’s three remaining state mental hospitals.

But Monday, those same facilities in Gainesville, Chattahoochee and Macclenny look like they’re going to absorb the brunt of some 500 layoffs planned by the Department of Children and Families to cover a $48 million agency reduction, included in the $69.7 billion budget now before Scott.

DCF Secretary David Wilkins sent a memo to the agency’s 13,000 employees Monday outlining the effort to spare “front-line” employees “who are acting as first responders for children, adults and families in need.”

“However, we have many opportunities to improve our administrative operations. By consolidating many back office services, improving automation and simplifying many of our processes,” he added.

The layoffs are expected to take place by June 30, Wilkins pointed out. That’s the end of the state budget year. (more…)

Scott’s tax breaks dwindle, but gov likes budget deal

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011 by John Kennedy

Within hours of legislative budget-writers declaring they had reached a deal Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott was praising it — although it only gives him about one-sixth of the tax breaks he demanded.

“These are great first steps and will move our state in the right directions,” Scott said, adding that the budget proposal meets his “core principles” of shrinking government, cutting taxes and overhauling public pensions.

Lawmakers are likely pleased with Scott’s early take, especially because — by the numbers — the first-year governor falls short of what he was wanting. Scott sought a $459 million, first-year reduction in the state’s corporate income tax, by reducing the state’s 5.5 percent rate to 3 percent.

Budget-writers, though, have agreed to a $30 million cut — fueled by increasing the state’s exemption on corporate taxpayers.

Currently, taxes aren’t owed by companies whose payments would total less than $5,000; lawmakers would boost that exemption to $25,000, with supporters saying it effectively exempts almost half of Florida’s businesses, most of them smaller companies.

Scott’s biggest tax-cut victory is in reducing water management district property-tax rates by more than $200 million. Other reductions include a $25.6 million back-t0-school sales tax holiday — which Scott didn’t even include in his wide-ranging tax-cut package.

But Scott seems happy. The proposal, he said, sends a message to other states, “that we are clearly open for business.”

State school spending heads further south

Thursday, April 28th, 2011 by John Kennedy

When the House and Senate approved separate budget proposals earlier this month which slashed public school spending by at least $1 billion, lawmakers said they were intent on boosting those dollars before session’s ends.

But wishes met reality Thursday night when school budget negotiators met for the first time and the bottom-line cut mushroomed to $1.3 billion. Per-student funding would drop an average $540 — to $6,269, a deeper reduction than earlier proposed.

Senate schools budget chief David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said the overall cut includes an $859 million reduction stemming from the demand by lawmakers that 655,000 government workers in the Florida Retirement System, most of whom are teachers, contribute 3 percent of their pay to their pensions.

The $859 million represents a savings for school districts, which formerly paid the entire FRS share. Schools also retain $554.8 million in federal stimulus reserves distributed last fall, said Simmons, who refuted lingering pushback from educators who say it’s unfair to count that cash toward state funding.

“It’s all green money,” Simmons insisted. 

 By his calculus, schools are losing less than 1 percent of funding overall, Simmons said.

Negotiations are slated to renew tomorrow morning.

Senate inches upward in health and human services spending

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011 by John Kennedy

House and Senate budget negotiators took early steps Wednesday toward resolving at least $3.3 billion in differences, with Senate Health and Human Services chief Joe Negron offering to boost spending for critically ill, aged and disabled Floridians, and eliminate a planned 5 percent cut to nursing homes.

“Everything in this offer reflects a priority,” said the Stuart Republican.

The Senate inched upward, offering to spend $38 million, including $13 million in state taxpayer money backed by federal dollars, on prescription drug coverage for some of the 46,000 adults in the Medically Needy program.

The Senate had earlier erased the program’s drug coverage, while maintaining physician services. But drug coverage is a vital and costly service for the transplant patients, critically ill Floridians and other hard-to-insure enrolled in the program.

 The offer, which is being reviewed by House negotiators, would bring back about one-quarter of the Medically Needy program.

Similarly, Negron said the Senate also was willing to spend $45 million on the Medicaid Aged and Disabled program (Meds A/D) which the chamber earlier proposed shutting down in April. The cut would have shut off prescription drug coverage for more than 42,000 low-income elderly and disabled Floridians.

 The Senate offer would cover less than one-quarter of those now served.

Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, the House lead budget negotiator, is running the Senate proposal up the political flagpole in that chamber — and is expected to report back at midday.

Negron said that under budget allocations decided by House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, the Senate can spend about $300 million more than it had earlier. The House must come down $100 million from its budget for health and human services.

With the extra cash, Negron also said the Senate was eliminating a 5 percent cut planned for nursing home payments, although hospitals and HMOs still face deeper reductions. Medicaid payments to doctors and dentists also would be increased under the Senate offer.

Budget talks between the House and Senate had been stalled for more than a week. But now they’re going to move swiftly.

Racing toward a scheduled May 6 adjournment, Cannon and Haridopolos have said any differences unsettled by Friday will be turned over to the budget conference chairmen to decide.

 Issues bigger than these leaders will go to Cannon and Haridopolos a day later for final deal-cutting.

Scott says corp tax cut “right thing for the state”

Monday, April 25th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The blurry framework of a state budget showed some signs of emerging Monday, but scores of big-ticket issues and personal  friction continue to stand between state lawmakers and a deal.

Gov. Rick Scott also is a wild card — repeating his call Monday for a corporate income tax cut that failed to gain support earlier in the day in a Senate committee.

“I’m confident it’s going to happen,” Scott said. “Just discussions I’ve had, I think it’s going to happen. It’s the right thing for the state.”

Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander gave prospects for the tax cut poor odds, shortly after the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee postponed action on a Scott-pushed proposal carried by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples.

 But Scott said lawmakers could enact the tax cut without having to slash even deeper budget proposals that already reduce public school spending by at least $1 billion.

“I think there are funds there,” Scott said.

Scott spoke after a closed-door meeting with former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who also was Florida’s chief executive from 1979-87. Graham said the pair exchanged ideas about economic development. But he also said he didn’t put a lot of faith in tax cuts as a catalyst for luring businesses.

Florida’s history shows that tax cuts have coincided with periods of low growth in jobs.

“That doesn’t seem to be a very strong recommendation that tax cuts are either the way to create jobs or enhance the value of  jobs,” Graham said.

Graham also is wary of the reductions in education spending promoted by Scott and lawmakers.

Graham said he shared his concern with Scott. It was received, “respectfully,” Graham said.

Developmentally disabled crowd Scott’s office protesting cuts

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Dozens of developmentally disabled Floridians and their caregivers crowded Gov. Rick Scott’s office Wednesday, protesting a 15 percent rate-cut the Republican chief executive ordered last week to close a $170 million deficit.

The crowd came to the Capitol the same day the House and Senate were debating next year’s budget proposals — which seek to include enough dollars for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities that the rate reduction would be lifted.

 But for the closing three months of the current budget year, jobs are threatened and group homes may close, advocates said.

“Most of our staff makes less than $8-an-hour,” said Ross O’Banion, executive director of Angels Unaware, Inc., which operates eight group homes in the Tampa area. “They’re not in it for the money. And about 70 percent of the people who live in our homes have no parents, no nearby relatives, or they’ve been taken away from parents because of abuse.

“They have no safety net,” O’Banion said.

Advocates for those with Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, spinal bifida and other disabilities organized Wednesday’s gathering at the Capitol, which drew hundreds from around the state.

But those at the rally were disappointed. No lawmakers emerged to address the crowd when it began gathering outside the Capitol. And outside Scott’s office, where they crowded the reception area and lined a Capitol corridor, supporters said a Scott aide stepped out only to tell them the governor was out of town — touting tourism in Palm Beach County.

Will life get tougher for Florida’s poor? Scott: “I hope not.”

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott said Tuesday he still expects the Florida Legislature to embrace his call for $2 billion in tax breaks, mostly for corporations and property owners, even though both the House and Senate are poised to approve budgets this week that ignore his pitch.

“I believe they will,” Scott said. “It’s something that’s very important to getting the state back to work. I really believe that we’ve all got to understand that we’re competing with 49 other states and a lot of other countries. And we’ve got to make this a state where we want to live, work and play.”

In cutting $1 billion from schools and imposing deep reductions in programs serving the poor, elderly and disabled, legislative leaders have said the budget-slashing would have to be even tougher to make room for Scott’s push to phase-out the corporate income tax and reduce property taxes going to schools.

Scott wouldn’t talk about the prospect of vetoing a budget without the cuts. “I’d rather not think about hypotheticals,” the governor said.

But lawmakers also have hinted they are wary of potential political backlash if they cut programs for some of Florida’s neediest — while handing out tax breaks. Meanwhile, higher tuition costs, electric rate hikes and property insurance boosts all look likely to emerge from a Legislature that claims an aversion to tax and fee increases.

Asked if life would get tougher for lower-income Floridians when the Legislature adjourns in May, Scott paused.

“I hope not,” Scott said. “First off, we’ve got to get this state back to work. The thing that impacts people the most in this state right now is the 1.1 million people without a job. If we take the different pieces…my goal is to make sure we’re reducing the cost of state government. But the biggest thing is, people need a job.”

Deep cuts to drug coverage in Senate plan

Friday, April 1st, 2011 by John Kennedy

Almost 90,000 poor, elderly or severely ill Floridians would lose government-paid prescription drug benefits beginning next year under legislation approved Friday by the Senate Budget Committee.

The move came a day after the same panel approved a red-ink plagued, $69.8 billion budget that included $450 million in cuts stemming from erasing the services.

But it also clouds the future treatment for some of the state’s most vulnerable patients, said Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston.

She said it’s time lawmakers look at tax or fee hikes to ease the deep cuts ruling Republicans are using to close an almost $3.8 billion budget gap.

“I know we need to cut,” Rich acknowledged. “But we’ve been cutting for three years now. We need to look at other options.”

The legislation (CS/SB 7174) affects more than 46,000 adults in the Medically Needy program, who would be limited to receiving state-paid physician coverage, losing drug coverage. State and federal financing of costly medication therapy, though, helps sustain many of these transplant patients and catastrophically ill Floridians.

The Senate also would end the state’s Medicaid Aged and Disabled Program (Meds A/D) in April, eliminating prescriptions for more than 42,000 low-income elderly and disabled Floridians.

Health and Human Services Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said he hoped to reinstate the programs during budget negotiations with the House, which has avoided the proposed cuts.

 But he said the stark decision also makes a case for the Legislature’s proposed Medicaid overhaul, which would steer 2.9 million low-income, elderly and disabled people into managed care programs to save money.

“You can’t do everything,” Negron said of the budget cuts coursing through health and social service programs. (more…)

House panel OK’s stark budget

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The House budget committee OK’d a stark, $66.5 billion spending plan Wednesday which reduces the state’s workforce by 5,245 jobs and imposes wide-ranging cuts to most state programs.

The Republican-led panel approved the measure on a party-line 15-8 vote.

“It’s about the best budget we could do, given the circumstances,” said Appropriations Chair Denise Grimsley, R-Lake Placid.

But Democrats said the ruling GOP was threatening critical programs, while endangering Floridians with such efforts as privatizing prisons and probation officers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

“When the budget puts life at risk, I have an issue,” said Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston.

School spending headed in one direction: South

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011 by John Kennedy

House Democrats doing the math on the public school budget proposal unveiled Tuesday by ruling Republicans released a short list of  “lowlights.”

Per-pupil spending would decline $473 next fall — to $6,327; the lowest level since 2005-06, Democrats said. Overall spending on schools also would drop $1.1 billion, under the House plan, advanced by the PreK-12 budget subcommittee.

The House’s almost 7 percent per-student cut emerged  just a day after the Senate unveiled its own proposal which includes a 6.5 percent reduction. With Gov. Rick Scott having earlier recommended a 10 percent cut, the direction classroom spending is headed is becoming pretty clear even in this early stage of budget work.

Lawmakers managed to stave-off deeper school cuts the past three years, with the help of billions of dollars in stimulus cash from Washington. Last year, alone, $2.5 billion poured into the state treasury — money that has now dried up, leaving a gaping hole.

House Republicans countered, saying Pre-K spending still commands the most state cash in an otherwise lousy year.

““The depth of the budget shortfall is tremendous and every area is likely to see cuts,” said Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera,  R-Miami. “The House budget prioritizes education, with K-12 education receiving the greatest percentage of the general revenue allocation.”

House eyeing school cuts less than Scott’s

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The state House weighed in with its first look at public school spending Monday — outlining plans for a 7.7 percent reduction in the state’s current $6,899-per student spending.

That may sound rough — until you consider Republican Gov. Rick Scott proposed a 10 percent per-student cut in his budget proposal last month.

“It’s going to be rough,” said Vern Pickup-Crawford, lobbyist for the Palm Beach County School Board.

But it’s also early. Lawmakers and lobbyists are holding back on the scenary chewing that usually accompanies proposed school cuts — at least until Friday, when economists are expected to update a revenue forecast which already is leaving Florida in at least a $3.6 billion budget hole.

There are few indications that the forecast will improve much. But most close to the budget-writing also say the outlook is not likely to worsen — unless rising fuel costs add a new budgetary caution.

“And you’ve got to remember, transportation costs are a big part of district spending,” Pickup-Crawford added.

Rick Scott: Scary stuff

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Florida Democrats are relishing the comments of horror novelist Stephen King, who was among several thousand Floridians who joined Awake the State rallies Tuesday against Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed budget cuts.

King, who lives in the Sarasota area, criticized Scott for killing the high-speed rail project planned between Tampa and Orlando. He also suggested Scott may have a role in a future page-turner.

“Maybe my next horror novel will star Rick Scott,” King told the cheering crowd, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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