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Crist Budget Gets Harsh Greeting from Legislators

Gov. Charlie Crist’s proposed $69.2 billion budget, built on the hope of getting a gambling compact from legislators and $1.2 billion in additional stimulus cash from Congress, was battered Tuesday by a House council.

Amid a bipartisan blistering, Crist budget director Jerry McDaniel told lawmakers that the governor would come back with a different spending plan later – maybe, as the legislative session winds down -- if it becomes clear that the anticipated money isn’t coming.

“We would be happy to work with you to improve the product,” McDaniel told the House Appropriations Council on Education and Economic Development.

But that assurance didn’t do much to calm lawmakers.

“There’s nothing here I can use,” said Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Lake Placid, chair of the House Health Care budget panel, which is looking to plug a $1.8 billion Medicaid shortfall.

Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, was among several lawmakers who both questioned the governor’s financing methods and also his decision to retain only $250 million in reserves – down from as much as $1 billion last year.

“I appreciate the work you’ve done,” Glorioso said. “But you’ve got to start over.”

While acknowledging that the Crist administration is looking to work with lawmakers, McDaniel later told reporters that the governor had nothing to apologize for with his spending decisions.

The state spending plan faces as much as a $3.2 billion shortfall.

But Crist plugs budget holes with $433 million anticipated from a gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe that has failed to win final approval from lawmakers; $352 million by diverting money from state trust funds for conventional state spending; $233 million from the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund normally reserved for children’s health and elder programs, and $1.2 billion in extra federal spending on Medicaid still not approved by Congress.

“There are some in the Legislature who have some concerns with our assumptions,” McDaniel conceded. “But the only real assumption we have now are the federal Medicaid matching rates. The compact dollars are there…the trust fund sweeps are there. The Lawton Chiles dollars are there. The only assumption we are making is something that we believe will happen anyway.”

“We’re going to stick with the budget recommendation we have now,” McDaniel added.

But Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, said, “I appreciate the governor’s optimism. But it really is making a lot of assumptions and kind of relies on a wish and a prayer.”

Governor’s budgets don’t usually resonate long with lawmakers, who are charged with crafting the state’s spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. But for Crist, a candidate for U.S. Senate, the spending plan seems ready to endure for some lawmakers as a bitter symbol of a lame-duck governor who already has one foot out the door.

The modest level of budget reserves, which some said they feared could prompt Wall Street to lower the state’s bond rating and affect its borrowing ability, drew some of the harshest criticism.

“Do you think the governor would be comfortable with this low level of reserves if he was going to be around for another four years as governor?” asked House budget chair David Rivera, R-Miami.

McDaniel didn’t flinch. “I believe he would be.”

McDaniel said that with Florida unemployment approaching 12 percent and businesses only beginning to see signs of an upturn, it was important to use state spending as a financial trigger.

“He’d rather plow the money into economic development and tax relief,” McDaniel said.

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