TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s need to make deep budget cuts because of the recession may finally be over.
A new budget forecast released this week by state economists shows the state is expecting to bring in enough money in 2013 to meet its needs for public schools and health care programs while leaving $1 billion for reserves.
The three-year forecast will be presented to legislators next week.
This is a turnaround from recent years when legislators have been confronted with budget shortfalls.
A $4 billion shortfall in 2011 prompted a round of layoffs and a contentious move to force public employees to pay
3 percent of their salaries to cover part of their pension costs. The nearly $70 billion state budget that took effect in July included a $300 million cut to state universities.
Amy Baker, the head of the state’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research who helped draw up the new forecast, said recent rounds of budget cuts and a slow recovery from the recession have resulted in the forecast that shows that the state’s budget should remain balanced.
“Even though it is slow and gradual we are in recovery,” Baker said. “You are starting to get better and better growth rates.”
Rep. Denise Grimsley, the current budget chief for the House, noted, however, that the new forecast does not say that the state will suddenly have a budget surplus.
“This neutral outlook furthers my belief that the Legislature should continue to maximize every taxpayer dollar by rooting out government inefficiencies and unnecessary spending,” said Grimsley, R-Sebring. “Breaking even should not signal the return of happy days or reduce our obligation to taxpayers to be good fiscal stewards.”
If the new forecast holds, it could ease some of the political sniping that has erupted over the budget in the last few years.
State economists have projected there is enough money to cover increases in programs such as Medicaid, the state safety-net health care program, while also setting aside nearly $500 million to help bolster the state’s massive pension plan.
Stock market losses during the height of the financial meltdown means that the Florida Retirement System does not currently have enough money to cover all current and future benefits for public employees. It is about 13 percent underfunded though that is still considered healthy by many financial experts.
The absence of a budget gap also makes it easier for Gov. Rick Scott to push ahead with aggressive tax-cutting plans, including eliminating the state’s corporate income tax.
Scott and the Legislature as part of an annual budget exercise had already asked state agencies to propose 5 percent worth of cuts. Additionally, Scott’s own chief operating officer has been working with agency heads on more proposals for additional savings.
Baker did warn that the good news about the current forecast assumes that Congress will find a way to avoid automatic cuts that are part of a deficit-reduction plan approved last year.
Scott has already warned that as many as 39,000 jobs could be lost in the Sunshine State next year if cuts in national defense spending take effect in January.
Florida’s constitution requires that state economists draw up a three-year financial outlook each fall that looks at spending projections in key programs such as Medicaid and available tax revenues. Lawmakers will meet next March for their annual session where one of their main jobs will be to draw up the 2013 budget.