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Senate approves $71 billion state budget; now come negotiations with House

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate passed a $71 billion budget Thursday with bipartisan support after Republicans agreed to Democratic moves to save a rural prison from closure and to spend $1 million more to keep elderly people out of nursing homes.

The vote was 33-6, as two Republicans and four Democrats voted no.

The Senate budget cuts state aid to adult mental health and substance abuse, increases tuition at colleges by 3 percent and allows state universities to raise tuition by 15 percent. Gov. Rick Scott opposes tuition increases.

The Senate vote sets up negotiations with the House over the next 10 days to seek a budget compromise to bring the 2012 session to a timely end by March 9.

For the fourth straight year, lawmakers are forced to cut programs — by about $1.4 billion this time — to cover shortfalls in sales tax receipts. But at the same time, they added $1.1 billion to the public school budget, which translates to an additional $192 more per pupil. The increase, however, does not quite compensate for last year's cut of $1.3 billion.

Senate leaders said that slowly and modestly, the state's revenue outlook is brightening, and they held out hope that this might be the last round of budget-cutting.

"Hopefully, this is the bottom of the trough and we can build budgets that are responsible in the forthcoming years," said Senate budget chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Other highlights of the Senate budget include:

• The closing of eight prisons due to a declining inmate population. Only seven prisons are identified; the eighth is yet to be chosen, and Jefferson Correctional in Monticello, Jefferson County's largest employer, will stay open for another year.

• No across-the-board pay raises for state workers for the sixth year in a row and the elimination of 3,800 full-time jobs in state government, most of which are unfilled.

• No new money for construction and maintenance of public schools statewide, and $55 million for construction at charter schools.

• A requirement that D- and F-rated elementary schools provide an extra hour of reading instruction for students, at a cost of $119 million.

• Reserves of $2.2 billion for emergencies and contingencies, including the borrowing of $265 million from the Lawton Chiles Endowment fund for children's programs.

• A one-time raid of $400 million of universities' reserves to help pay for programs not related to higher education.

Senators stuffed the budget with a last-minute batch of local projects, several in Miami-Dade. They include $500,000 for the Bay of Pigs Museum, $150,000 for a historical log cabin in Biscayne Park and $100,000 for Family Empowerment and Intervention Family Meeting Nights in North Miami.

Other projects inserted in the budget include $1 million for a World Class International Regatta Sports Center in Sarasota, a project Scott vetoed last year.

"I'm just bothered by some of these . . . We're broke," said Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, one of two Republicans to vote against the budget. He said the projects should be funded locally.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, also voted no, saying it was irresponsible for senators to spend millions on projects while cutting state aid to universities by nearly 6 percent.

Also voting no was Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston, who said: "We could have and should have done so much better."

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, did not vote on the budget.

The Senate budget is about $2 billion larger than the House's $69 billion spending plan, largely because of accounting differences. The Senate wants to merge the Tampa and Orlando expressway authorities.

The Senate budget also includes the annual budgets of all 67 county court clerks and transfers more than $400 million in car and truck tag fees from the general budget to expand road construction and repair.

Senate approves $71 billion state budget; now come negotiations with House 02/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 23, 2012 5:24pm]

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