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House freshmen get educated on how state budgetary ‘sausage’ is made

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Florida House freshmen attended an introductory course to writing a state budget Tuesday. They learned that the process gives them sweeping authority, but within the limits of fiscal reality.

At present, Florida government is running a $3 billion reserve within a total budget of around $83.5 billion. But if spending continues at existing levels, that reserve will fall by half by this time next year.

And if that happens, the state will find it impossible to maintain its ability to borrow and its cash-flow obligations, while still providing services to the public, House Appropriations Committee chairman Carlos Trujillo said.

“The most important thing is to realize the responsibility that we have,” he summed up following the budget workshop.

“We have to pass a balanced budget. We don’t have any additional revenues. In order for us to meet our obligations, we have to manage our revenues with our expenditures. If our expenditures continue to grow, we have to find other places to save money.”

The 45-minute workshop was among a number of offerings during Legislature University, organized by House leaders to orient new members. You can find the lineup here.

Trujillo and budget committee staff director Joanne Leznoff led the discussion.

They covered the basics about the state budget.

“It’s a bill. It’s filed. It’s vetted through the process. It’s passed out of the House. It’s passed out of the Senate. It’s sent to conference. At the end, like any other bill, both sides have to match,” Trujillo said.

Freshmen might find the process hard to follow, he continued.

“Your first year, and probably your second year, the budget is almost a mystery,” Trujillo said. “You’re voting on it, and it’s very difficult to follow. Our goal today is that you’ll all have an elementary understanding of how that function works.”

Trujillo and Leznoff emphasized the Legislature’s sweeping authority over money. Unspent money reverts from an agency unless the Legislature says so. An agency can’t reduce its headcount in favor of higher salaries unless the Legislature agrees.

“Ultimately, they’re accountable to us,” Trujillo said.

“The decisions that you make are really much more than how much money you’re giving to an agency. It’s policy of what services you want that agency to deliver, and how you want that service delivery to occur,” Leznoff said. “The choices before you are many, and they are significant.”

There is one significant constraint, however.

“You don’t just pass a budget. You pass a balanced budget,” Trujillo said.

That’s required under the Florida Constitution — revenues and expenses have to match.

“It’s a zero-sum budget. If you’re adding here, you’re subtracting somewhere else,” he said.

Additionally, the Florida Constitution requires the Legislature to consider three-year trends when writing budgets. And the trend shows a $1.8 billion deficit two fiscal years down the road if spending and taxation continue at existing levels.

“This session is really a challenge and opportunity for us. We have to prepare for that 12 months out,” Trujillo said.

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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