Senate Released Econ Dev. Budget

By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida
By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida


With $24.2 million in general revenue cuts and another $200 million cut in trust fund revenues, a Senate budget committee on Monday unveiled its first shot at a spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.

With final economic forecasts due out at the end of the week, the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development spent its entire meeting Monday outlining proposed cuts and funding shifts to comply with budget allocations set forth by the Senate’s budget chief JD Alexander.

Reorganizations at the Agency for Workforce Development and the Department of Community Affairs provide the bulk of $24.2 million in general revenue cuts unveiled Monday under a plan that eliminates 572 full-time positions.

With AWI seeing a $16.2 million general revenue cut and DCA’s reduction totaling $6.1 million, the agencies will instead use non-recurring revenue to make up a portion, but not all, of their current year budgets as lawmakers consider folding the agencies into a larger umbrella department to oversee most aspects of economic development.

The spending plan also calls for sweeping the state’s affordable housing trust fund and redirecting the roughly $200 million a year it generates for other as yet-to-be-determined economic development programs.

“The good news is the amount of (general revenue) cuts we’ve had to make has been halved,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and chairman of the committee. “That’s the good news.”

Among proposals that raised questions and debate were cutting $22 million from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles by closing driver’s license offices, reducing state trooper overtime by $6 million and saving another $6.5 million in administrative costs by cutting 184 full- time positions.

The initial Senate proposal also calls for taking $16.2 million from the state’s early school readiness program and paying for that with non-recurring revenue. The shift will allow 26,000 slots to remain open, backers say, despite the absence of federal stimulus money that is no longer available.

“We’re just trying to shim that up so we can get them through the next year,” Gaetz said.

Fueling many of the changes is $65 million in Florida Housing Finance Corporation funds that went unspent over the past fiscal year, a surplus that angered Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, who questioned why the agency had money left over in the face of such poor economic times.

“I think you better come to my office on this,” Bennett told a Florida Housing staffer when asked if he had questions.

The cuts rely on a 623-page plan released Friday that calls for the consolidation of those agencies into a single agency more firmly under Gov. Rick Scott’s control.

The bills creates a new “superagency “ called Jobs Florida, which consolidates the work of several others and puts it more directly under the governor’s thumb.

The proposal transfers responsibilities of the Agency for Workforce Innovation, the Department of Community Affairs, the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, the Division of Housing and Community Development and the Division of Community Planning to the proposed new Jobs Florida.

The Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, already under the governor’s direct authority, would also be rolled into the Jobs Florida umbrella.

Other proposed changes would transfer oversight of the Florida Communities Trust Fund and the Working Waterfronts program to the Department of Environmental Protection. The state’s Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program would be transferred from AWI and the Department of Children and Families to the Department of Education.

Arguably the most controversial provision gives the governor the authority to transfer funds among those entities without having to seek legislative approval. That provision has drawn much skepticism from Republicans in both chambers, who fear it would shift the balance of power too dramatically in the governor’s direction.

“I think that shifts a little too much authority,” said Bennett, echoing a sentiment Gaetz later said is held by a majority of members in the chamber.

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