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State budget slicing begins
SOURCE: Orlando Sentinel
John Kennedy
August 27 2007

Florida school officials, social-service groups and prosecutors will be among those looking to dodge the budget ax when lawmakers return to the Capitol this week to work on slashing as much as $1.1 billion from a slumping state budget.

But legislative leaders promise that cuts are coming -- despite Gov. Charlie Crist floating the idea that more gambling in Florida could lessen the blow.

"I am wary of anything that can be seen as expanding gambling in Florida," said Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, part of House Speaker Marco Rubio's leadership team.

"I think we should first look at how state government can live within its means. And if we have less money, that means we have to cut."

The proposed deal to allow Las Vegas-style gambling at Florida's seven Seminole Tribe casinos could emerge before lawmakers start a special session Sept. 18 to plug the budget hole.

Crist, though, said the agreement would be binding only if approved by the Legislature. Top lawmakers say the gambling pact may be endorsed by the state Senate but faces long odds in the more conservative House.

Legislators this week begin committee hearings as part of the first step toward putting together a blueprint for patching the state's $71 billion budget, whose estimated $1.1 billion shortfall stems primarily from a decline in tax receipts caused by a sour housing market.

The slump is the worst the state has endured since the 2001 terrorist attacks staggered Florida tourism and led to a similar steep drop in tax dollars.

Crist, however, has offered a glimmer of hope to programs and services that rely on state money -- saying the deal he is working on to give the Seminole Tribe slot machines and Las Vegas-style table games could generate enough cash to fill some budget gaps.

"We don't care where the money comes from, but if it produces additional dollars, we'd expect a lot of it to go toward education," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

Public schools could lose $720 million in per-student funding under 10 percent cuts outlined earlier this month by all state agencies. A more likely scenario, though, is for schools and many other state programs and services to absorb a 4 percent reduction, Crist and lawmakers say.

But most facing cuts are looking to ease the pain. State prosecutors wrote Crist last week warning that deep budget cuts will endanger their ability to secure convictions under tough sentencing laws the governor supports.

Cuts in transportation funding could result in the loss of many additional dollars of economic activity generated by road-building, business advocates said.

"We're already hearing plenty of pleading," said Senate Majority Leader Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden. "We'll hear more next week. But I think 4 percent across-the-board cuts are what we're going to do."

Gambling, however, has suddenly emerged as a tantalizing alternative.

Senate analysts say the state's share of expanded gambling could amount to $50 million to $500 million a year. But rising opposition appears certain to delay -- if not scuttle completely -- Crist's bid to finalize a deal with the Seminoles.

"I love Charlie Crist, but government's apparent resignation to the idea that we have to have more gambling is disheartening to me," said Bill Sublette, an Orlando lawyer and ex-legislator who serves as chairman of No Casinos Inc.

No Casinos fought ballot initiatives to legalize casinos in Florida in 1978, 1986 and 1994 -- winning each time. But the Seminoles appear poised to at least get slot machines out of any deal, since such devices already are in place at Broward County pari-mutuel facilities.

Voters statewide in 2004 gave Broward and Miami-Dade counties the go-ahead to hold local referendums on allowing slots. Voters in Broward approved the measure in 2005, while Miami-Dade voters rejected their initiative.

Federal law grants American Indian tribes the right to host the same gambling games as those that take place throughout the rest of a state. Crist has been negotiating with the Seminoles on not only having slot machines at their seven Florida casinos but also such games as blackjack, roulette and baccarat now prohibited in the state.

Under the broader deal, the state would get millions of dollars from the tribe in exchange for the Seminoles' having the exclusive right to hold such games at their existing casinos.

The nearest Seminole casino to Central Florida is in Tampa.

Crist last week said that although he has gotten dueling advice, he would not consider any deal with the Seminoles approved until it was ratified by the state Legislature.

Republican state Sen. Dennis Jones, chairman of the Senate's Regulated Industries Committee that oversees gambling issues, said he generally favors expanding tribal gambling. But he said it's unlikely to play much of a role in helping the state rebalance the budget.

"It's certainly not going to be the answer to filling a $1 billion budget hole," Jones said.

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