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House and Senate budget compromise comes together in a rush

Florida House budget chairman David Rivera, R-Miami, talks with Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, during a budget meeting Monday night in Tallahassee. 

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Florida House budget chairman David Rivera, R-Miami, talks with Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, during a budget meeting Monday night in Tallahassee. 

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers reached a deal on a new budget shortly before midnight Monday after bargaining over everything from workers' pay and benefits to health care appropriations.

As lawmakers finalized the series of last-minute decisions a torrent of local projects suddenly surfaced — from $8.5 million for Florida A&M's Crestview Education Center to $1 million for the Discovery Center museum in Fort Lauderdale to $150,000 for emergency generators for the town of Golden Beach in Miami-Dade.

Library lovers scored a victory when lawmakers added $7 million to library funding for a total of $21 million, sufficient to qualify for $8 million in federal matching money. Sen. J.D. Alexander saluted Paul Clark, a devoted library employee who sacrificed personal vacation time and spent days in the Capitol, peacefully hoisting a protest sign.

Public defenders will receive an additional $2 million to handle workload increases — a boost credited to Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa. Florida International University got $32.5 million for a health clinic to be built in conjunction with the county.

Another $40 million in anticipated Medicaid surplus money was allocated to Everglades restoration, and $400,000 was funded for a civics mentor teaching program at the University of Central Florida's Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government in Orlando. Miami's Jackson Memorial will get an extra $25 million, but the money is contingent on stronger county oversight of the hospital's financial condition.

For the fifth year in a row, rank-and-file state employees won't get an across-the-board pay raise. But in a reflection of the state's weak financial condition, the workers union declared victory because its members avoided a 3 percent pay cut that had been seriously considered.

State workers in HMOs will pay higher co-payments for doctor visits, from $15 to $20 to see a primary care doctor and from $25 to $40 for a specialist.

Hospitals and nursing homes were the biggest losers in the health budget. They each sustained a 7 percent rate cut. Miami Children's Hospital, St. Petersburg's All Children's Hospital and rural hospitals had their rates cut by 3.5 percent. Mental health and substance abuse programs also received numerous cuts that lawmakers said made them uneasy.

For the first time, all 160 state legislators and about 27,000 highly paid state employees will pay a share of their health insurance premiums, but it won't be much: $100 a year for single coverage and $360 a year for family coverage. Legislators' salaries will remain unchanged for next year at about $31,000.

Other decisions lawmakers reached Monday include:

• Requiring voter approval for school districts to impose an optional property tax of 25 cents for $1,000 of assessed property value.

• Allowing up to 20,000 chronically ill patients statewide to order drugs by mail.

• Barring taxpayer funds from paying for human embryonic stem cell research by state universities.

• Prohibiting state-sanctioned travel to "terrorist states" such as Cuba.

The $69 billion-plus budget will reach legislators' desks today in time for the constitutionally mandated three-day cooling off period before a vote on Friday, the last day of the 60-day session.

The budget talks unfolded in an atmosphere of heightened transparency, giving a seldom-seen-glimpse into the horse trading that occurs in the final days.

Some legislators were struck by the absence of Gov. Charlie Crist and his key budget staff members at the crucial conference committee meetings.

"The governor's got a different style," Sen. John Thrasher said, "but the budget's pretty important stuff. It's the one thing everybody ought to be paying attention to."

House and Senate budget compromise comes together in a rush 04/26/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 27, 2010 1:27am]
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