Budget Woes and Special Session

TALLAHASSEE — Not even the rosiest of glasses appear able to soften the glare as lawmakers face a $2.3 billion hole in the current year budget and a worse financial conundrum in the year to come.

Senate President Jeff Atwater said the state’s dire financial picture would require an unscheduled return visit to the Capitol next week. House members are already scheduled to be here.  A special session, which Gov. Charile Crist also supported this week, is not long to follow.

“I think anything beyond January is pushing us beyond what's right for us to act,” a somber Atwater, R-Palm Beach Gardens, told reporters, noting Florida is facing the biggest economic downturn since the Depression. “The marketplace is looking for us to take action.”

Senators got a glimpse of the big picture as they met in a rare full-chamber committee hearing to get the bad news all at once from state economists who packaged a series of previously released and dismal reports into one, all-encompassing cry-fest.

While the state’s piggy bank may be limited, suggestions on how to raise money are not. Crist has sent a $7 billion list of ready-to-go transportation construction projects to federal officials that he'd like to get started with the help of a federal stimulus bill, many of which Florida has had in the pipeline but hasn't been able to pay for over the last couple lean years.

Florida is competing with other states for about $63 billion in economic stimulus and transportation funds. Sen. Mike Fasano, chairman of the state Senate committee that helps write Florida's transportation budget, agreed with several transportation experts that the state isn't likely to get anywhere near what it's seeking.

Democrats meanwhile say lawmakers could raise cigarette taxes to help fill the void, an option that has received a cool response from Republican leaders including the governor. Boosting the tax could up the amount of money going to health and human services in a tight budget year, and in the long term would decrease health care costs, says the Florida Association of Counties, which supports the hike.

Cigarette taxes would also relieve some pressure on lawmakers to use the state’s tobacco-funded trust fund. Speaking to reporters earlier this week, the family of former Gov. Lawton Chiles said it would ask that the Lawton Chiles Endowment be renamed if Crist uses the fund created in 1997 to shore up the current state budget.

What lawmakers won’t be able to bank on is a surge in new consumers, long the engine driving this growth-addicted state. Florida's population, which grew by 2.6 percent over the decade ending in 2006, is now growing at less than one percent and may actually experience a zero-growth period, said state economist Amy Baker. Growth will begin rebounding in 2010 to 20 million by 2014.

One bright note is that the state’s pension fund is in relatively good shape despite taking a $42 billion hit over the past several months. The fund has seen its balance drop from $137.5 billion a year ago to $95.7 billion, but remains one of the best funded plans in the nation.

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