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Lawmakers Begin Looking for Budget Cut Targets

Lawmakers are beginning the process of deciding what goes on the chopping block in next year's budget, as economists predict the state will face a budget shortfall of nearly $3 billion with flat tax collections and rising Medicaid rolls.

“The fact is we have to figure out our priorities,” House PreK-12 Appropriations Chair Anitere Flores said Tuesday.

The last official count had the state budget shortfall at $2.6 billion, but growing Medicaid rolls and other expenses will put the shortfall closer to $3 billion, budget officials have estimated. The state will see an infusion of stimulus dollars, but the $3 billion shortfall is on top of the federal money.

House appropriations chairs in several committees on Tuesday outlined an exercise where lawmakers should identify their top priorities in the given budget category, such as criminal justice or education. The committees will debate these choices in February, and then repeat the exercise, but instead name items that could be slashed.

Last year's budget was $66.5 billion.

A number of interest groups argue that was shy of what’s needed. Public defenders and prosecutor caseloads far surpassed the recommended averages and courtrooms were so jammed that cases took longer than normal to go through the judicial process.

Teachers were laid off and school programs were cut.

Raising revenue isn’t openly an option at the moment, with Republicans saying cutting and saving must come first. Democrats on the House Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee and House Prek-12 Appropriations Committee asked Tuesday if ways of bringing more money into the state treasury might at least be on the table and in both instances were rebuffed.

“It's almost setting us up to say these are not important areas and let's just go ahead and cut those,” said state Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, during the House Criminal Justice Appropriations meeting.

In criminal justice, anything is up for grabs. The court system,, public defenders and prosecutors could all face further cuts.

In education, many lawmakers want to try to protect the per pupil funding as a top priority, but auxiliary initiatives, such as mentoring programs or rewards for excellent teaching, could be slashed.

Flores said her top priority is to ensure that “as much money gets to children as possible,” but noted that the Legislature is still a far way off from May, when the budget must be completed.

“This is just step one in the overall process,” she said.

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