- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2003

TALLAHASSEE, Fla., March 19 (UPI) — The battle over how to meet Florida's potential $4 billion budget deficit for the fiscal year starting July 1 is heating up, and big program cuts loom.

Legislators fear that education and medical services for the poor may take the biggest hits.

The projected budget deficit is aggravated by the need to fund constitutional amendments to cut class sizes in public schools and establish a bullet train through the southern half of the peninsula.

A plan to come up with at least $1 billion to cover part of the $4 billion met defeat in a 6-3 vote in a House committee Tuesday, but the plan may be revived in the Senate.

It would permit pari-mutuel plants such as thoroughbred race tracks, greyhound tracks and jai-alai frontons to install video slot machines to provide tax money for the $54 billion budget.

Republican Senate President Jim King is a strong supporter of the bill and could use it as a centerpiece for the budget.

Democrats say House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, also a Republican, intentionally put it in position to be killed in committee.

"That is kind of the siren's call of easy money. There is no easy money. There are no free lunches," Byrd said.

King acknowledges the defeat in committee doesn't help, but he still has hope.

"It certainly wounds it. I don't necessarily think it's a death knell," King said.

Gov. Jeb Bush has called for another vote on the class size limit, but it would require a three-quarters vote of both houses of the Legislature, and appears to have little support.

There is a move to try to move the burden of paying for the high-speed train between Miami, Orlando and Tampa to the private sector, but there has been little movement on that during the first three weeks of the 60-day session.

Another target that is even more difficult is Medicaid, which accounts for $12 billion of the budget. The program's budget has doubled since 1994, but is essential for Floridians who cannot afford to pay for their own medical care.

Bush has proposed tuition increases for state universities and cutbacks in scholarships.

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