ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
In Tallahassee, hundreds of protestors gathered today, representing labor unions, environmental groups and the Tea Party. They turned out for the opening of the state legislative session. Over the 60 days, Florida's House and Senate have to close a multibillion dollar budget shortfall.
NPR's Greg Allen reports that the money is expected to come out of funding for education, Medicaid and the pensions of public employees.
GREG ALLEN: The opening of Florida's legislative season always brings lots of visitors to town. Usually, they're lobbyists for business groups and other special interests. Today, their numbers included dozens of the Tea Party, roaming the capitol building, looking to buttonhole legislators.
Pace Allen, who helped found Tallahassee's Tea Party, paid his second visit of the day to the office of Representative Ritch Workman.
PACE ALLEN: But here's a copy of what I promised to bring back for...
Unidentified Woman: Okay.
ALLEN: ...Representative Workman. Is he ever - is he gone to a meeting or...
Woman: He is in his committee meeting that he chairs right now.
ALLEN: All right, well, that's the agenda for the Tea Party group that's here today.
ALLEN: Allen said many of the legislators he met seemed genuinely happy to see him. That's one more reason why he has high hopes for this legislative session.
ALLEN: I think a lot will be accomplished. People will begin to understand that we can't keep expanding a lot of programs. We have to cut back because the money isn't there.
ALLEN: That's an oft-repeated refrain in Tallahassee, one you hear from Governor Rick Scott and from the Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate.
MIKE HARIDOPOLOS: The Senate is called to order.
(SOUNDBITE OF A GAVEL)
ALLEN: Senate President Mike Haridopolos tried to prepare Floridians for a session that's likely to bring big cuts to social services, education and environmental programs. Compared to some state shortfalls, Florida's $3.6 billion budget gap, plus another billion dollars needed to replenish reserve funds, looks almost manageable. To close it though, Republican leaders have ruled out any increase in taxes. In fact, Governor Scott wants to cut corporate and property taxes further.
Haridopolos said the legislature would balance the budget through cuts, starting with Medicaid, a joint federal-state healthcare program for the needy that consumes nearly a third of Florida's budget.
HARIDOPOLOS: The increasing Medicaid population, rising healthcare costs and unfunded federal mandates have created the black hole that will swallow the state budget sooner than later, if we do not act promptly.
ALLEN: Another top item on the legislature's agenda will be overhauling the pension system for state employees. State workers may be asked to contribute five percent of their annual salaries to their pensions, a move that amounts to a five percent pay cut.
In the state House, Speaker Dean Cannon warned the legislature to get ready for the protests.
DEAN CANNON: Many of those protesters and interest groups will attempt to manipulate the emotions of our citizens in an effort to influence all of us. To those groups I say this: In this session in this House, we will not make decisions based on the politics of fear or anger.
DOROTHY INMAN: The governor has determined that instead of creating jobs, he will eliminate jobs.
ALLEN: Outside the capitol, Dorothy Inman Johnson, the director of an anti- poverty group, spoke to several hundred demonstrators gathered at a rally organized to oppose the spending cuts.
Nancy Dowdy, a former city employee in Tallahassee, said saving money by targeting the benefits of teachers and other public employees, makes no sense.
NANCY DOWDY: We already have the most efficient state government in all the 50 states. We have the lowest costs, we keep cutting taxes. And what we're doing is we're cutting our future for our children, especially in education.
ALLEN: This rally and more than 30 others held across Florida today, are called Awake the State, a movement organized by unions, state employees and other traditionally Democratic groups. But at least for now, they're on the outside looking in. Florida's state government and its budget is firmly in Republican hands.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Tallahassee.
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