Calling Florida's financial outlook "ugly," the chief steward of the state's dwindling checkbook announced Wednesday that Gov. Charlie Crist and the state Legislature need to hold an extra-ordinary lawmaking session as soon as possible.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said that state economists next Friday will likely announce that the state's budget deficit has grown and legislators need to quickly figure out what programs to cut and whether to find a way to raise new fees, taxes or other revenue sources. Early estimates are that the state's current $800 million deficit would grow another $700 million to $1.2 billion.
"The time is now," Sink said. "We know it's not going to be a pretty picture next Friday. Whether it's $700 million or $1.2 billion - whatever the number is, it's ugly. And so we all need to be prepared very quickly when the final official word comes in."
Right now, Crist and his fellow Republican leaders in the Legislature haven't sounded as urgent about the state's budget as Sink -- the only Democrat in the state Cabinet -- demurring questions about a special lawmaking session until after Friday's conference of state economists Nov. 21.
On that day, House Republicans will be wrapping up a three-day Panhandle getaway at the luxury WaterColor resort in Santa Rosa Beach. Incoming House Speaker Ray Sansom told reporters Wednesday that taxpayers aren't footing the bill for the annual event -- the state party is.
Sansom said state leaders need time to reflect said he was not prepared to call for a special session and remained confident that the budget -- already $6 billion smaller than last year's -- can be balanced during the regular legislative session that begins in March because of Crist's call for a four percent state-agency cut that's already in place.
He did not rule out a special session, however. "We're always thinking about it," he said. "I just don't know yet if it's something we need to do or not."
Sansom said it will "take a little time'' for the 45 freshmen legislators "to organize'' and get prepared. But, at an orientation meeting Wednesday he urged them to "be humbled'' by the enormity of their assignment. "When you see the budget, you'll be brought to your knees," he told them.
Crist, attending the Republican Governors Association meeting Wednesday in Miami, was non-committal when asked the day before about how to handle the crisis.
Sink, a banker and the only statewide leader with a financial background, warned that the state faces a cash flow problem that has already forced the govenror to seek permission to borrow at least $1.5 billion from trust funds, dedicated spending accounts, to pay its bills through January. The money, however, must be paid back by the end of June and legislators must find the cash to do it.
"I have a very strong belief that we cannot wait until next March to deal with this year's financial issues," she said.
Sink offer few specific recommendations for how to balance Florida's budget. She suggested that the Legislature look at raising some licensing fees that cost more to manage than they bring in, and take targeted budget cuts, but she admitted that much more than that would be needed to fill the budget hole.
Asked if the state can continue budgeting for all of its needs without raising more
revenue, Sink said: "I don't know."