Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Legislature considers eliminating environmental jobs

By Bruce Ritchie

House and Senate committees are considering recommending cutting more than 100 positions from environmental agencies to meet a projected $2.3 billion state budget deficit.

The Legislature is meeting in special session this week to find ways to reduce a $2.3 billion budget shortfall caused by the slow economy.

House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee Chairman Ralph Poppell
proposes eliminating 96 vacant positions from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to save $2.3 million in recurring general revenue. He also proposes eliminating 19.5 positions from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and 31 vacant positions from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Most of the positions targeted for elimination by the committee had remained vacant for more than 180 days. If any position remains vacant that long "we probably don't need it," Poppell, R-Vero Beach, said Monday.

"It would be a lot more fun if we could sit up here and be Santa Claus rather than Grinch," Poppell told a committee hearing. "But it's part of the process."

The House committee seems to be "fairly careful" about identifying budget cuts, said Janet Bowman, director of legislative policy and strategies for The Nature Conservancy.

David McInnes, legislative director for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, told Poppell the department would propose alternatives to reduce the number of law enforcement and firefighter positions that would be eliminated under Poppell's proposal.

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson last month said firefighter positions should be spared and that an agricultural inspection station on Interstate-10 in Pensacola would need to be closed if there were deeper law enforcement cuts.

The Senate General Appropriations Committee is considering cutting 33 positions from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission along with 34 positions from Agriculture and Consumer Services and 40 positions from DEP.

In the House, Poppell also proposes transferring $11 million for land management from a trust fund to the general fund to make up for the budget shortfall. Another $8 million in a land management trust fund for water management districts instead would go into general revenue.

He said the trust fund transfers were needed because revenues had fallen short. And he said the committee was trying to target vacant positions without hurting existing programs.

Bowman said the cuts in land management, which includes burning underbrush to reduce wildfire threats and improve wildlife habitat on state land, could cost the state more in the future.

Spokesmen for DEP and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said the Legislature is early in the process of addressing the revenue shortfall and their agencies are working with legislative leaders and the Governor's Office.

"We are trying hard to minimize the impact on services and employees," commission spokeswoman Patricia Behnke said.

Both the House and Senate budget committees meet again Tuesday morning starting at 8 a.m.

Copyright Bruce Ritchie.

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