On a party-line election-year vote, House Republicans Thursday pushed through their blueprint for spending $67.2-billion of taxpayers' money next year -- most of it for education, health care, transportation and public safety.
By a 74 to 44 vote, the House sent its spending plan to the Senate, setting the stage for lengthy negotiations between the two chambers before they must agree on a compromise by April 30 and send it to Gov. Charlie Crist.
Struggling to plug a revenue shortfall of $3.2-billion, lawmakers endorsed an increase in college tuition of at least 8 percent and up to 15 percent, with the remaining 7 percent at the discretion of each school. Support to universities and community colleges would drop by 2.5-percent. State workers could face salary cuts of up to 3 percent, at the discretion of agency heads.
The House budget is fortified by $2.4-billion in federal economic stimulus money, a third of which is allocated to public schools. Yet the House still lowers per-pupil public school spending by less than 1 percent -- the first such decrease in five years and one of many painful political choices confronting Republicans, who cited Florida's weak economy to justify the lean budget.
"I don't want anyone to think this is an attack on education," said Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, the lead House education budget-writer. "The fact is that Floridians have less money, and when Floridians have less money, government should have less money."
At a time of record unemployment and housing foreclosures in Florida, Republicans said it makes no sense to impose additional tax burdens on Florida families. "Raising taxes is not an option," said Rep. Esteban Bovo, R- Hialeah.
Democrats decried a drop in public school funding as well as cuts to public defenders and prosecutors, less money for stipends for older foster children, another round of cuts in reimbursement rates to pharmacies and hospitals and the loss of Medicaid coverage to some poor pregnant women.
Democrats suggested eliminating business-friendly sales tax exemptions to generate more money. They said Republican spending decisions would result in Florida lagging further behind other states in areas from low birthweight and premature babies to a slump in high school graduation rates.
"This budget fails Florida families, small businesses, our children, our own employees, and our elderly retired citizens," said Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, decrying planned cuts in pension benefits to current and retired government workers who rely on a state pension program.
During a lengthy floor debate, Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, read a letter from James Goodnow, who said he's quittiing after seven years as a prosecutor in the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office because of "continuous threats by the Legislature to cut the budget, salaries and benefits of prosecutors."