- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Lawmakers tap reserve fund

TALLAHASSEE | A select panel of lawmakers tapped $672 million from a reserve fund last week, but Florida is facing a potential budget deficit that could force the Legislature into special session after the November election.

The Legislative Budget Commission unanimously approved the transfer Wednesday recommended by Gov. Charlie Crist, the Tampa Tribune reported.

It falls $795 million short of filling a projected $1.47 billion hole in the budget for the current fiscal year that ends June 30. Even bigger gaps are predicted for the next three years by a long-range outlook that the panel also approved.

The Florida Constitution prohibits budget deficits, but the commission agreed with Mr. Crist, a Republican who wants to delay any further action until state economists update their revenue forecast in November.

The deficit in the $66 billion budget has been caused by lower-than-expected tax and revenue collections blamed on Florida’s sputtering economy.


Committee formed to study road needs

TOPEKA | Legislative leaders have formed a committee to study the state’s transportation needs and how to pay for new projects.

They created the 16-member panel, which will have seven senators and nine House members.

The state’s current, 10-year transportation program, worth some $13 billion, ends next summer.

Last month, Transportation Secretary Deb Miller formed a 30-member task force to tackle transportation issues, and possibly draft a plan for a new program.

Legislative leaders still haven’t committed to passing a new plan next year, after the Legislature convenes in January.

House Speaker Melvin Neufeld said the committee will determine whether lawmakers can pass a plan next year.


Agency hedges on trans fat ban

As artery-clogging trans fat becomes officially forbidden in Boston restaurants over the weekend, state health authorities said they do not think they have the authority to extend the ban unilaterally across Massachusetts.

Instead, a spokesman for the state’s public health commissioner said a review of the agency’s powers suggested that the legislature can impose a statewide prohibition on trans fat - long a staple of french fries, doughnuts, and other food sold in restaurants and corner stores.

A top lawmaker last month asked the Department of Public Health to review its options after legislation to ban trans fat across the state languished in the Senate despite winning approval in the House of Representatives, the Boston Globe reports.

“Given the fact that it’s not an open-and-shut case that we currently have the authority to ban trans fat and given the fact that a ban is currently under consideration by the Legislature, we at this point believe that our authority in this area is questionable,” said Tom Lyons, a spokesman for the state health agency.

The lawmaker who asked for the review - Rep. Peter Koutoujian, co-chairman of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health - said he intends to press the legislature to approve a statewide prohibition.


Energy legislation languishes in Senate

LANSING | Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm will have to wait longer to sign broad energy legislation that includes a requirement that more of the state’s electricity come from wind and other renewable sources.

The governor wanted lawmakers to pass a plan Thursday before she goes on a trade trip to Japan, where she plans to meet with renewable energy companies.

But the Republican-led Senate adjourned until next week because a deal hasn’t been reached.

Mrs. Granholm, a Democrat, has urged state regulators to look into requiring more green energy if the Legislature doesn’t act.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop said if regulators are authorized to set renewable goals, Mrs. Granholm should have asked for their help years ago.


Heating costs plan proposed for winter

Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, and legislative leaders from both parties have proposed a plan to help financially strapped families pay for home-heating costs this winter.

The linchpin of the package would have the state advance up to $10 million from the state treasury to serve the same number of families from the low-income heating assistance program, despite the soaring cost of heating oil, the Nashua Telegraph reports.

The state received $25 million in fuel aid a year ago, and the state’s bipartisan congressional delegation has gotten behind efforts to at least double that sum this year.

If the Capitol Hill effort does not succeed, the $10 million would mean the program could at least serve the same, roughly 30,000 families that got assistance in 2007.

Should the feds come through with more cash this fall or after the election of a new president, the plan calls for additional federal money in excess of $25 million to pay back the state’s cash advance.


State to lease road to recoup revenue

HARRISBURG | The federal government has rejected Pennsylvania’s plan to toll Interstate 80, creating a $450 million void in the state’s transportation funding plan and breathing new life into a proposed $12.8 billion turnpike lease, the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reports.

Leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike for 75 years is the only available option at the moment to replace that revenue, Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat, said Thursday at a news conference.

Spanish toll road operator Abertis Infraestructuras SA and Citigroup made the offer in May, but lawmakers have been cool to the plan.

“It would be playing Russian roulette not to act on the Abertis bid,” said Mr. Rendell, who has long sought a turnpike lease despite significant resistance from lawmakers.


Agencies submit spending requests

MADISON | State agencies have submitted their spending requests for the next two years.

Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat, will use the requests as a starting point for the state’s new two-year budget that he will craft over the next few months. He will introduce it to the Legislature in February.

The last budget was passed more than four months late.

The state’s economy was shaky then and hasn’t improved since.

Mr. Doyle told agencies in June not to expect any increase in funding over the next two years. In July, he ordered more than a dozen agencies to cut millions of dollars in spending to help close a budget deficit.

The next budget begins July 1.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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