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Haridopolos Wants Voters to Cap Spending

Strict new limits on state spending could be enacted by voters under a measure pushed Tuesday for the November ballot by incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

The Merritt Island Republican acknowledged rising opposition from cities and counties by rewriting his proposal to exclude local governments from the spending cap. But he insisted the state action was consistent with the Senate’s call last week for a constitutional convention to draft an amendment aimed at requiring Congress to balance the federal budget.

“The only way to lead is by example,” Haridopolos said of his legislation (SJR 2420), which needs three-fifths support from both the House and Senate to get on this fall’s ballot.

The measure Tuesday cleared the Senate Community Affairs Committee on a 5-3 vote. The proposal does allow lawmakers to circumvent the spending limits by a two-thirds vote of both houses.

Haridopolos has dubbed his proposal, the “Smart Cap.” It’s similar to the controversial “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” measure approved by Colorado voters in 1992 but later loosened there to a so-called TABOR cap similar to what Florida has in place since 1994.

Haridopolos’ proposed amendment would replace that 16-year-old limit, which caps state revenue collections to those of the prior fiscal year plus an adjustment for growth. Haridopolos has criticized the existing cap as too weak because it excludes such spending as debt service from bonds -- now $2.1 billion because of the state’s record-high debt level – along with federal Medicaid matching funds, dollars which the new plan would include under the limit.

Haridopolos’ proposal would allow state spending to rise from the 2010-11 level only by the annual rate of inflation and rate of population gain. That would limit most years’ growth to low single-digits. This year’s budget is shaping us as likely less than 3 percent larger than last year’s $66.5 billion spending plan.

But critics, which included the Florida League of Women Voters and AFL-CIO, said the measure would unnecessarily tie the hands of legislators and keep state spending rooted at levels many already see as inadequate. The 2010-11 budget, which would serve as the base for future spending, already falls $3.2 billion short of maintaining most programs at last year’s level.

“This legislation would have a devastating effect on Florida,” said Ben Wilcox, lobbyist for the Florida League of Women Voters.

The spending cap proposal is positioned as the second November ballot measure moving in the Senate. Along with calling for a constitutional amendment for a balanced federal budget, the Senate also wants Florida voters to consider a non-binding resolution calling for the same thing.

The Senate ballot measures still have not advanced in the House.

Haridopolos, though, said he expects the cap to win approval.

“The state budget should not grow faster than people’s ability to pay for it,” Haridopolos said.

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