House Dems, Republicans Trade Cyber-Punches as Cuts Begin

By: John Kennedy, The News Service of Florida
By: John Kennedy, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 15, 2011……House Democrats are refusing to take part in what Republican leaders call a 15 percent budget cut exercise, even as committees Tuesday took the first steps toward trimming.

Democratic Leader Ron Saunders of Key West and House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, traded barbs over e-mail, with the Democrat later saying he was wary of the GOP’s attempt to bring his side into the preliminary budget-cutting.

“I don’t know what their goal is,” Saunders said. “But we’re not going to go into cutting the budget without looking at anything else.”

Democrats say they have not received assurances that they will play a role in the critical task of determining allocations – setting the large pool of state funding for specific budget areas. Democrats also have said they fear Republican leaders will use any budget-cutting recommendations they make against them in future negotiations.

House Democrats also declined last spring to take part in a similar budget-cutting blueprint.

But Lopez-Cantera, in his e-mail, said rival party members were shirking their duty. Lawmakers are expected to recommend their spending cuts to budget panel chairmen by March 1.

“This is a slap in the face to voters who expect their elected officials to be engaged in the legislative process,” he said.

Amid the partisan cyber-chatter, House health care and higher education budget committees began reviewing spread sheets listing hundreds of programs that could be subject to cuts. In health care alone, $1.7 billion must be slashed to achieve the 15 percent spending cut of state funds.

Community college presidents testifying before the House panel warned that many of the cuts could work against Gov. Rick Scott’s job-creating goals.

Former Rep. Joe Pickens, a Palatka Republican who is now president of St. Johns River State College, said his college could see reductions to its law enforcement academy or nursing programs, even though most of these graduates find jobs with relative ease.

“We are putting people directly into the work force,” Pickens said. “But we might have to eliminate” such programs.

David Armstrong, head of Broward Community College, agreed. “It’s going to be a difficult thing to determine what we should cut first,” he said.

But Rep. Larry Ahearn, R-St. Petersburg, said he was skeptical of such claims, saying that administrators should be able to find more reasonable program reductions.

“I’d like to hear some other ways of dealing with these cuts,” he said.

The higher education budget chair, Rep. Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake, assured there were cuts coming and that lobbyists representing threatened interests should be candid with lawmakers.

“It’s not like we’re trying to save money, keep it in reserves, and just cut these programs,” O’Toole said. “This is cutting to the bone on just about every appropriations committee. And there are few exceptions.”

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