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House passes $69.2 billion budget on party lines

TALLAHASSEE — Divided along party lines, the state House passed a $69.2 billion budget Thursday that raises college tuition by 8 percent and pays for a $1 billion increase in education by cutting health programs for the needy.

The vote was 79 to 38, with every Republican present voting yes and every Democrat voting no.

Democrats argued that the $1 billion increase in public schools is not an increase at all, because it doesn't quite make up for last year's $1.3 billion cut.

"We're still not even made whole from what the cut was last year," said Rep. Martin Kiar, D-Davie.

The House would cut payments to hospitals by 7 percent and to nursing homes by 2.5 percent, and eliminates Medicaid coverage for podiatric and chiropractic care for adults, affecting about 34,000 patients statewide.

Under the House plan, Bright Futures scholarships for college students would be cut by 9.3 percent. About 4,500 state jobs would be eliminated but many are vacant. Nearly a third of all job eliminations are in the prison system.

The House budget spares two state prisons from being closed: Hillsborough Correctional in Riverview and Jefferson Correctional in Monticello. But lawmakers concede that the Department of Corrections has the independent authority to close them.

"It's not that I'm totally opposed to closing the prison," said House budget chief Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring. "But closing it with no notice totally devastates the community." If the prison system shuts the prison over legislative opposition, she said, "I think it would be a bad decision."

The no-new-taxes election-year budget marks the fifth year in a row that lawmakers have cut spending to make up for a persistent shortfall in sales tax revenues.

Outnumbered Democrats criticized Republicans for refusing to consider new revenue sources, such as taxing Internet sales or collecting what they say are unpaid taxes by online travel companies. They said it was wrong to cut minority health initiatives and funding to historically black colleges.

Republicans congratulated themselves for not increasing the tax burden on Florida families.

"We are still in a recessive economy and we have put together the most responsible budget that we can," said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.

The Senate is proceeding more slowly with its budget than the House, but some stark differences have emerged. The Senate is opposed to increasing college and university tuition but has proposed much more significant cuts to mental health and substance abuse programs.

The Senate also has not decided whether to keep open some prisons slated to be closed.

The state prison in poverty-stricken Jefferson County is the area's largest employer, and residents have said that if it closes, the picturesque county just easy of Tallahassee will become a ghost town.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, the new chairman of the Senate budget panel on prisons, said that the cost of keeping Hillsborough and Jefferson open is $18 million, and that lawmakers must find cuts of that amount to keep both prisons open.

Bogdanoff said that in the final analysis, Gov. Rick Scott has the authority to decide which prisons to close.

"He can do it anyway," Bogdanoff said. "Once we go home, it's the governor's call."

Times/Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.

House passes $69.2 billion budget on party lines 02/09/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 9, 2012 3:53pm]
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