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State budget talks focus on education, environment, libraries and prisons

TALLAHASSEE — Public schools, libraries, private prisons and a popular land-buying program dominated budget discussions Friday as lawmakers raced to complete work on a $69 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The two budget chairmen, Rep. David Rivera of Miami and Sen. J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales, will spend the weekend trying to resolve dozens of differences ranging from pay and benefits for state workers to per-student funding in schools to the status of a controversial private prison in Santa Rosa County.

Earlier in the day, the lead negotiators on the education budget, Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, and Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, were able to agree on the broad outline of education spending, with Florida's K-12 schools will receive the same amount of money per student next year.

Under their agreement, schools will continue to receive an average of $6,873, a $28 increase from last year. But lawmakers aren't sure how they are going to get to that number.

Several wide-sweeping measures that could determine how many local tax dollars are counted toward the per student average are still up in the air.

The House wants to base its budget on the assumption that districts will receive 96 percent of property taxes, which gives the appearance that the state is increasing funding. The Senate wants to calculate the budget at the traditional rate of 95 percent.

Senate leaders said this change could create hardship for local schools. If taxpayers don't pay up, schools districts could be left short of dollars mid year.

But the House said the policy shift would allow the state to account for all tax dollars that are being collected, even if tax payments are delayed.

Lawmakers want to require school districts to hold public hearings on how local schools are meeting class-size limits currently being phrased in. Some Democrats are concerned these gatherings will be used to persuade parents to increase class-size caps in a referendum on the November ballot.

Schools that do not meet the constitutionally mandated class-size counts will have to pay fines of up to 50 percent of the state's per student funding total for each pupil over the limit.

Friday's bargaining also included a House agreement to spend $11.7 million on libraries next year, about half of what the Senate had proposed. The House decided that programs to attract new corporate jobs to the state was equally important, but the state's top library official said the result would mean a loss of federal matching money.

"It's disappointing," said Secretary of State Kurt Browning, whose agency doles out library money. "At a time when library use has skyrocketed, we're going to cut services."

No budget is final until the presiding officers, House Speaker Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater, sign the bottom line. Atwater, who's running for the statewide Cabinet post of chief financial officer, said he would look for more library money.

"It's not done, and that remains open as well," Atwater said.

Similarly, Atwater said he was troubled by "heartbreaking" cuts to providers with state contracts to treat the developmentally disabled. Hospitals, nursing homes and Medicaid health maintenance organizations already face rate cuts of 7 percent next year.

Environmentalists were pleased that lawmakers allocated cash for two popular initiatives: $10 million for Everglades restoration and $15 million for Florida Forever, a land acquisition program. Those amounts are much smaller than usual, but advocates were worried that the programs might not get any money.

"If we lose Florida Forever, it would make it much harder to get it reinstated next year," said Audubon of Florida's Eric Draper.

Alexander continues to push to open the empty Blackwater River Correctional Institution in Milton, a new $120 million state prison designed to be run by a private company. "I don't know how I would tell the taxpayers that that's okay," he said.

Opening Blackwater would mean closing beds in state-run prisons and the loss of hundreds of jobs. A potent union for correctional officers, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, is lobbying to keep Blackwater closed.

The Senate has dropped a plan to break up the Department of Management Services, which manages state-owned real estate, and a House-led plan to reorganize the Department of Health will be studied over the next year by a "blue-ribbon task force."

Alexander said legislative leaders have agreed to leaving about $2 billion unspent in reserve as a cushion against another round of economic aftershocks next year. That includes about $800 million from a hoped-for extension of a federal Medicaid stimulus program that has not yet passed Congress.

Times/Herald staff writers Mark Caputo and John Frank contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

State budget talks focus on education, environment, libraries and prisons 04/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 23, 2010 11:21pm]
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