TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - It's almost becoming an annual rite each year in Tallahassee: Another year, another billion-dollar plus budget shortfall.
Florida lawmakers head into their annual session in January confronted by a nearly $2 billion gap. This time around it is primarily caused by an unenviable combination of growing expenses in safety net programs such as Medicaid at the same a sluggish economic recovery is expected to keep tax dollars from growing significantly.
In the last several years, as the recession has taken its toll on the state's battered real estate market and unemployment soared into double digits, the Republican-controlled Legislature has tried nearly every way to balance the state budget. They've cut spending, they've eliminated state workers, they've relied on billions in federal stimulus dollars and one year they even raised taxes.
This coming session legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Scott have already ruled out one option: Raising taxes or fees as a way to help balance the budget. That means lawmakers will instead have to come up with another round of cuts.
"There's no easy choices in this budget year," said House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. "It's a tough budget year and there's no magic bullet."
The governor has already given lawmakers his own recommendations that will likely be used as a building block for the final budget.
Despite the shortfall Scott has come up with own $66.4 billion spending plan that would significantly boost spending on schools by making steep cuts in what the state spends reimbursing hospitals to take care of patients enrolled in Medicaid. He also wants to shut down a handful of state prisons and eliminate some 4,500 state jobs.
The governor's second set of budget proposals are dramatically different from the one he offered shortly after was he first sworn into governor.
Scott in early 2011 called for a 10 percent cut for education, as part of a "jobs budget" that also called for nearly $2 billion worth of tax cuts as part of his push to jumpstart the state's economy.
Scott now says he's heard from Floridians that they want more money spent on education so he is pushing a budget that would boost public school spending by roughly $1 billion. His tax cut proposals, meanwhile, have been dramatically scaled back. This year Scott is calling for a modest change in the state's corporate income tax and a tax break for companies purchasing machinery and equipment that together would cost roughly $30 million.
Scott also hinted that he was willing to veto the entire budget - and force lawmakers to do it over - if they approve a budget that did not include a significant increase for schools.
Initially the governor was unwilling to say what a "significant" increase is, but he also says he likes what he recommended.
"I think the right number is a billion dollars," Scott said.
Scott's budget proposal drew a sharp response from Democratic legislators who accused the governor of pitting seniors and prison guards against teachers. The move also drew fire because the Medicaid cuts would fall hardest on not-for-profit hospitals. Scott led the nation's largest chain of for-profit hospitals in the 1990s until he was forced out amid a probe into Medicare fraud.
But Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, has called Scott's overall budget "very much reflective of what the Senate will be pursuing this year."
State employees could also find themselves getting targeted for budget cuts once again.
Last spring legislators forced public employees to start paying for a portion of their pension costs as a way to cover a nearly $4 billion shortfall.
Now legislators may go after state worker health care benefits as a potential source of savings. The state is spending nearly $1.9 billion on health care benefits for state workers, with about $1.45 billion coming from taxpayers.
The Scott administration earlier this year already negotiated new contracts with health maintenance organizations that limited the number of HMOs available for state workers and is expected to save the state more than $350 million over the next two years.
The governor, who currently pays $30 a month to cover himself and his wife, also has recommended that all state employees pay the same for health insurance. That's a move that would affect roughly 30,000 state workers, including Scott, his agency heads, managers and state legislators.
Rank-and-file state workers pay $50 a month for individual coverage and $180 a month for family coverage. Scott's push to require everyone to pay that rate would increase health insurance premiums for some employees by $1,800 a year for family coverage.
This would save close to $50 million.
But Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales and the Senate budget chief, has been looking at whether the state should revamp the types of coverage it offers state workers as both a way to save money - and as a way to encourage state workers to stay healthier.
"When you go out and make a $5 copay, it's real easy to be out of sight and out of mind what the real bill is," Alexander said.
Alexander added "if we are going to spend $2 billion, I want to spend that $2 billion to get the best possible deal we can for the people."
State legislators normally pass their budget during their annual 60-day session, which usually starts in March. But this year's session begins Jan. 10 because the Legislature must also pass new maps for legislative and Congressional districts.
Haridopolos, citing fears of a "topsy-turvy" economy, has thrown out the idea of delaying a final vote on the budget until later in the year. The state's fiscal year doesn't start until July 1. He says that by waiting, legislators will have a better idea of knowing if the economy is truly recovering. That could change how much money lawmakers have to cut.
"I am very reluctant to pass a budget with numbers that are uncertain," Haridopolos said.
Cannon, however, doesn't want to come back in a special session later in the year and doesn't think there will be large enough swings to justify waiting.
"I find it highly unlikely that in two-months' difference we would see some massive increase in revenues," Cannon said.
Reporter Bill Kaczor contributed to this story.
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