Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Business

$74.5B state budget comes with something for everyone

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TALLAHASSEE — The largest budget in state history landed on the desks of Florida lawmakers Monday, brimming with a 6 percent spending increase that includes a tuition hike for university students, pay raises for teachers and state employees and hundreds of millions in new hometown spending.

Lawmakers must wait until Thursday afternoon before they can vote on the $74.5 billion budget, which represents a $4.5 billion increase from last year. The extra money, a possible indication that the state's economy is on the mend, bought peace in the state Capitol as lawmakers from both parties stuffed the spending plan with pet projects.

Negotiations wrapped with a day to spare, an unheard of feat in more austere times. Lawmakers received the budget at 1:37 p.m. Monday.

"It's a great win for the governor, it's a great win for the Senate and for the House," said Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "And most importantly it's a win for teachers and students to have a billion dollars going to education."

There's still a strong possibility that Gov. Rick Scott will veto some cherished proposals. Chief among them could be a 3 percent tuition hike. The increase would raise $18 million for the state's 12 universities and cost students an extra $6 per credit hour.

Last year, Scott vetoed a bill that would have allowed the University of Florida and Florida State University the freedom to raise tuition. In 2007, then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a 5 percent tuition increase. Some argued that he didn't have the authority to reject the tuition hike while leaving the rest of the budget intact and that it could have been overturned in court. But no one challenged Crist on it. That might be why Scott won't say if he'll reject an increase this year.

"I don't believe in tuition increases," Scott told reporters Monday before adding a caveat. "Clearly, I'll look at the language."

Florida lawmakers pumped more than $1 billion dollars into the K-12 education budget. That includes an increase of about $404 in per-pupil funding, up 6.3 percent over last year.

The budget also contains $480 million for pay raises for school employees. The salary increases will be available for teachers, guidance counselors, principals and other instructional personnel who are deemed "effective" or "highly effective" by their school districts.

School systems will have the freedom to develop their own plans for evaluating teachers, so long as the formulas are based on student achievement. The state Board of Education will have to approve each plan.

It's a departure from the governor's budget, which called for across-the-board pay raises for classroom teachers. Still, Scott praised the language in the Legislature's proposed budget.

"All of our teachers have the opportunity for a pay raise," Scott said. "There's going to be flexibility with the school districts to do the right thing."

But Florida Education Association president Andy Ford said the union was "disappointed" that House and Senate leaders were tying the raises to untested methods of evaluating teachers, and that the raises wouldn't kick in before June 2014.

Lawmakers included more than $200 million for raises for about 160,000 state and university employees, their first general pay increase in seven years. Workers making below $40,000 would get a $1,400 pay raise, while those making more than $40,000 would get a $1,000 raise. About 35 percent of state employees would have a chance to earn up to another $600 bonus if they are given positive evaluations.

On Monday, Scott told reporters that lawmakers were close to agreeing to one of his top priorities: eliminating a sales tax on manufacturing equipment that would cost the state more than $140 million. But Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said it was premature to say they've reached an accord.

Scott still has some leverage. He said he'll be inspecting a larded-up budget closely.

The multitude of pet projects was caused by "a lot of pent-up demand" from lawmakers eager to bring home state dollars for the first time in years, said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon. He said there was "too much" money put into local projects and that Scott could easily reach $200 million in vetoes.

The budget completed by lawmakers is a boon for an as-yet unnamed public relations firm: The Legislature budgeted $1 million for a marketing campaign to educate motorists about the anticipated ban on texting while driving.

The budget is packed with hundreds of hometown projects across the state. A big winner is Weatherford, who nabbed $6.9 million for a new Pasco-Hernando Community College campus in Wesley Chapel. It would pay for a building that's already about 60 percent complete, Weatherford said, and has been in the works for about a decade. Scott vetoed the project two years ago.

"I don't think the governor will veto it," Weatherford said. "I feel confident."

Money was spread throughout the state on projects big and small, from fixing drainage pipes and roads to cleaning rivers and lakes to providing 10,000 rape-testing kits to law enforcement.

The state wants to spend tens of millions on cyber security and making public buildings more attack-proof. They want to study hurricanes more and the state fund that helps backstop insurers after a hurricane.

Lawmakers ponied up $100,000 for farm equipment at Lowell Correctional Institutions Thoroughbred Retirement Farm and another $100,000 for a compost machine at Dade Correctional Institution. Lawmakers also want to spend $500,000 to study ways to combat biting ants and another $500,000 on fighting mosquitoes.

Despite promises to expand transparency, legislative leaders removed $2.5 million from the governor's budget to set up a budget transparency website.

"All transparency was lost this past weekend,'' said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek. "There were budget items funded that no one had asked for."

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet, Marc Caputo, Mary Ellen Klas, Tia Mitchell and Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.

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