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State House Ponders Budget Cuts

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - Ahead of a Friday meeting to determine how much money lawmakers will have to spend in the fiscal year that begins July 1, the House budget-writing committee heard recommendations Wednesday for potential cuts across state government.

The Legislature is not expected to face a shortfall in the 2017-2018 budget, which lawmakers will negotiate before the annual legislative session wraps up in early May.

But by the following year, lawmakers could be $1.3 billion short of how much they will need to cover expected spending, with a $1.9 billion hole projected the year after that.

House budget subcommittees came up with a pair of scenarios based on how quickly the state should move to reduce the future shortfalls, but the prescriptions were largely the same in big-ticket areas: cuts in payments to hospitals, reductions in spending on universities and scaling back early-learning and other public-education programs.

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said how closely lawmakers follow the recommendations will depend on how state finances shape up in the future. But he said a reduction in expected spending of about $1.4 billion is a "realistic goal" for the coming budget year.

"I think it's a roadmap --- whether we decide to go down Road A or Road B --- but I think it's a roadmap of how we're going to craft our budget," he said. "I don't think anything's set in stone as far as specific amounts."

Lawmakers likely will get updated revenue estimates after a panel of economists meets Friday. The panel, known as the Revenue Estimating Conference, will analyze the state's general revenue, which plays a critical role in paying for schools, health care, and prisons.

Some of the House's potential budget reductions would essentially be cuts in name only. Shortfall projections take into account likely future increases in spending so the Legislature could balance out some of the problem simply by declining to add money to areas of the budget.

But many of the ideas floated Wednesday suggested that such maneuvers wouldn't be enough.

For example, House Health Care Appropriations Chairman Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, proposed the Legislature not increase some funding to reimburse health-care providers. But he also suggested $220.6 million in cuts to inpatient and outpatient hospital reimbursements.

One potential hang-up with the Senate could come if the House follows through on ideas that would scale back spending on universities. A plan outlined by Higher Education Appropriations Chairman Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, would reduce increases by more than half of the level projected by state economists --- under a slower-moving scenario.

Under the faster-moving scenario, universities would be hit with a cut of $80 million, though Ahern played down the significance of the reduction.

"While $80 million sounds like a large number, remember that the estimated expenditures for universities in the current year is $10.3 billion," Ahern said.

The House is also considering asking universities to use some of their reserves to cover a one-time hit of $38 million in both scenarios. However, when lawmakers tried a similar move to save $300 million five years ago, many universities covered at least part of the reduction with cuts to programs.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has made boosting the reputations of the state's universities one of his top priorities for the coming session --- though he now speaks more about increasing financial aid for students than a large boost in university spending.

Trujillo suggested Wednesday that the House could go along with that idea.

"Whether we should just give a bunch of money to the university system is one debate," he said. "Whether we should increase access to education ... I think we're much more receptive to that message than we are of just giving a wholesale amount of money to the university system."

The News Service of Florida's Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.

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