Surplus money found in state cache

There is no more money.

That’s a fact that lawmakers have been trying to deal with since November. With the advent of Amendment 9, and its price tag that has been estimated between $10 billion and $50 billion, Tallahassee has faced with serious budget issues.

Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2003 budget proposal reflects the current money woes. Many programs, if the proposal passes, will be slashed. Most notably, $200 million could be taken from transportation and another $111 million removed from state universities. USF’s share would be about $20 million.

With that in mind, government auditors were given the daunting task of finding a way to help settle Florida’s budget troubles and implement Amendment 9 as mandated by Florida voters. They responded with a rather startling revelation.

According to the auditors, about $12 billion in unspent state funds is currently sitting dormant in bank accounts. That figure is equal to more than 20 percent of the state’s $54-billion budget.

Florida State Sen. Victor Crist said some questions need to be asked about the money.

“The first question is why hasn’t the money been spent?” Crist said. “The second question is: Are there better priorities at this point?”

Crist, a Republican from Tampa, said if those questions are not clearly answered, the money should be moved back into general funds and redistributed. He said there are many programs, including universities, that need help.

“Right now, we’re trying to find money because of (Amendment 9),” Crist said. “I would like to keep tuition low and scholarships in place.”

That includes the hotly debated Bright Futures Scholarship program, which Crist said he wants to see stay in place.

Crist said the mood in Tallahassee since Bush announced his budget proposal has been one of panic. He said lawmakers are looking for new ways to create revenue. Those include a legalization of video poker, which he said, with bonds, could generate up to $10 billion.

As for the found $12 billion, Crist said lawmakers will have to pick through each allocation and make a determination.

“If it’s legitimate and reasonable, then OK,” Crist said. “(If it’s not), at that point, it’s not fair to hold it back.”

And while, after more scrutiny, only a percentage of the $12 billion may be returned to the state, he said every bit that can be found is important.

“It means a little bit less (taken) from someone else,” Crist said.

Crist said it pains him to see worthwhile programs undergo cuts. He said, however, with the current economy and budget situation, difficult decisions will have to be made.

“Everybody is going to have to feel a bite this year,” Crist said.