Budget Passes in Contentious Committee Meeting

By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida
By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 31, 2011 --

A pared-down $66.5 billion budget for the coming fiscal year passed the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, even as opposition Democrats assailed the spending plan as a danger to public safety and an attack on state workers.

The 15-8, party-line vote moves the budget measure to the House floor. Dozens of related bills also moved through the committee, with partisan votes also ushering through changes to the state pension plan and a measure deregulating several professions, including interior designers.

The Republican majority argued that the blueprint met their chief objective: Balance the spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1 without raising taxes or fees to fill the $3.75 billion hole.

“It’s a tough year,” said Appropriations Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring. “We’ve been forced to make some very tough decisions.”

Those decisions were painful, the GOP admitted, but necessary to avoid increasing the cost of government and potentially cutting off hopes of an economic recovery as the state emerges from the worst economic slowdown since the Great Depression.

“I don’t think there would have been any other way, without raising taxes, to do this,” said Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami.

Democrats and other opponents slammed the budget on a variety of fronts, but focused their attacks on a provision that would pave the way for privatizing prisons in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. The measure is narrower than the Senate’s privatization plan, but House Republicans have signaled that they are open to discussing turning over more facilities to for-profit corporations.

“I think that this is starting down a terrible, terrible path -- one that you might not be able to come back from,” said James Baiardi, president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association’s State Correctional Officers chapter. “ . . . Some parts of public safety just should not be privatized. And this by far is one of them.”

Rep. Marty Kiar, a Davie Democrat who filed an amendment striking the privatization measure from the bill, said studies done by the Legislature’s research arm didn’t show savings from private prisons. He also raised questions about whether the facilities could still be effective.

“I have a grave concern that if we privatize those areas . . . the health and safety of the residents of our community and our state will be greatly jeopardized,” Kiar said.

But Rep. Rich Glorioso, a Plant City Republican who oversees the state’s corrections budget, said the state had to abandon “business as usual” in efforts to close the budget gap.

“We know the cost of the facilities in Miami right now,” he said. “We know what the savings will be.”

The committee also approved a measure overhauling the state’s pension program by requiring employees to contribute 3 percent of their salaries; increasing retirement ages; and closing the Deferred Retirement Option Program to new employees.

Republicans conceded that there is no looming crisis in the pension plan, but said the money could provide budget relief this year by freeing up general revenue that would have funded the pension and would provide a new revenue stream in the future to help avoid potential shortfalls.

Democrats and public employees blasted the measure, labeling it a tax that balanced the budget on the backs of state workers.

Ken Williams of Tampa appeared before the panel to appeal for his daughter, a University of Florida student on track to become a high school teacher. He said the move would harm her financially.

“How does her future look now if we cripple her in her infancy as an educator?” Williams asked.

“Our message is, ‘We really don’t value your service,’” said Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston. “’We really don’t value you.’”

But Republicans dismissed the argument that a contribution to an employee’s own retirement can be labeled as a tax.

“It is not a tax,” said Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, who sponsored the bill. “You never get a tax back.”

And Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, said the cut state employees were taking is no different than the plan’s effects across the board.

“We are simply cutting general revenue, as we’re having to cut it everywhere,” he said.

The panel also clashed over a measure deregulating several professions, including some where the industries involved asked for the panel to leave licensing and other measures in place.

Several students and licensed interior designers emotionally urged the committee not to deregulate their work, saying it could cut off their ability to work on commercial projects.

Johanna Mele, six months away from becoming a licensed interior designer, said she had $100,000 in student loans after getting her education.

“You guys are telling me that there’s a possibility that this is going to mean nothing,” she said, near tears.

But Ed Nagorsky, director of legislative affairs for the National Kitchen and Bath Association, said designers were really trying to maintain a “closed shop,” and that the measure would not endanger health or significantly alter what designers can do.

“If you deregulate interior design, what the licensed interior designers are permitted to do today, all licensed interior designers will be able to do tomorrow,” he said.

Allen Douglas, legislative affairs director for the National Federation of Independent Business in Florida, called the law “the most blatant example of regulation and legislation to limit competition that we had ever seen.”

The bill passed on the same 15-8, party-line vote, but even some Republicans called for a second look at keeping interior designers in the bill. House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West, said a floor amendment would attempt to remove designers from the bill.

Two Republicans --- Proctor and Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna --- joined Democrats in opposing a measure amending state law to take out required funding for three cancer facilities, one named for Coley’s late husband. Democrats said removing the language amounted to a “breach of trust” after lawmakers passed an increase in tobacco taxes in 2009 based in part on the promise of new funding for cancer centers.

“This bill is a good example of why the public doesn’t and shouldn’t trust the Florida Legislature,” Saunders said.

But Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples and chief of the House’s health-care budget, used the same defense for so many of the budget measures that Republicans fully admitted were barely palatable: “This was one of those decisions that had to be made.”


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