Monday, November 20, 2017
Education

State workers, teachers are big winners in legislative budgets

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TALLAHASSEE — State workers and teachers are the big winners in budgets advanced Friday by a Legislature eager to spend $4 billion in new money generated by a revived Florida economy.

After four years of cutting spending during tough times, legislators are loosening the state's purse strings again. They want to boost public school spending by at least $1 billion, restore last year's $300 million cut to state universities, set aside at least $500 million to shore up the pension fund and sprinkle millions around the state for popular hometown projects such as a rowing center, an aquarium and museums.

For the first time in more than six years, state employees would get across-the-board pay hikes of $1,400 a year as part of the House proposal. The Senate offers state workers a 3 percent raise. Both options are more generous than Gov. Rick Scott's plan to give one-time cash bonuses to workers.

"We do believe that when state employees have gone six years without a raise, $1,400 is the right approach," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

The House budget is $74.4 billion and the Senate's is $74.3 billion, both slightly larger than Scott's $74.2 billion plan. The current budget is $70 billion.

What lawmakers are not yet doing is expanding Medicaid, as neither legislative budget includes federal or state money to expand the pool of insured Floridians.

But lawmakers plan to keep the cost of health insurance low for themselves and other state leaders by maintaining current premiums. Scott proposed raising premiums for himself and other state officials to the same level as rank-and-file workers.

Scott, three elected Cabinet members and the 120 House members pay no more than $400 a year for health insurance. The 40 senators pay the same as most state workers, about $2,200 a year for family coverage.

The separate spending plans, released near the halfway mark of the nine-week legislative session, signal the start of detailed negotiations between the two chambers and the governor.

Passing a balanced budget in time for the July 1 start of a new fiscal year is the only action the Legislature must take.

Teachers could get even bigger raises than state workers, but lawmakers want to tie them to student performance, which clashes with Scott's $2,500 across-the-board approach. It appears increasingly likely that Scott will have to compromise on his No. 1 priority of a teacher pay raise with no strings attached.

The Senate budget matches Scott's proposal for $480 million in teacher raises, but the money must be awarded based on student scores on the FCAT and SAT tests and other measurements, and is subject to approval by all 67 county school boards.

The House budgets $676 million for teacher pay raises and its budget "strongly encourages" 50 percent of the money be handed out based on performance.

Weatherford has challenged Scott by saying that the state Constitution does not allow the Legislature to mandate teacher pay raises because they must be negotiated through unions.

"Here's the intellectually honest answer on this whole issue, which I think has been missed," Weatherford said. "When we send this money down to the school district, it is collectively bargained with the local union as to how they want to spend the resources."

The House wants to increase college and university tuition by 6 percent next year, which Scott opposes.

Scott's other priority, a $141 million tax exemption for manufacturers' equipment purchases, has gained little traction in the Capitol. Bills to eliminate the tax require approval of two-thirds of members of both chambers, but they have not moved in the Senate or House.

House Democratic leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, criticized the House Republican leadership's opposition to Medicaid expansion and said it was "highly doubtful" that Democrats would vote for the budget as a result.

With extra money for the first time in years, lawmakers also want to sock away reserves in a rainy-day fund.

They also found lots of money for hometown projects, including the Senate's allocation of another $2.5 million for a rowing center in Sarasota, which received $5 million this year, and $1.8 million for an industrial park in rural Mossy Head in Senate President Don Gaetz's Panhandle district.

The House budget includes $3 million for the IMG Sports Academy in Bradenton, $2 million to expand Internet access in Hernando County, $1 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, $1 million for a ferry on the St. Johns River and $900,000 for a Bay of Pigs museum in Miami.

Scott vetoed $500,000 for a Bay of Pigs museum in this year's budget.

Times/Herald staff writers Tia Mitchell and Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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