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Florida budget negotiators report agreement on some spending

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers made significant headway on the budget Saturday, reaching consensus on economic incentives and transportation, prison and law enforcement spending.

But they had yet to find a compromise in the two most controversial parts of the spending plan: education and health and human services.

"We just opted not to go through that first," said House budget Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring. "We'll get to it, hopefully, tomorrow."

The chambers must align their budgets by Tuesday in order to finish the session on time. The Senate had proposed a $71 billion budget. The House version was $69 billion.

On Saturday, lawmakers agreed on an $86 million package of economic incentives aimed at bringing companies to Florida.

After initially disagreeing on how much power Gov. Rick Scott should have over incentive money, the Senate and House agreed to give the governor $61 million to use as he sees fit. An additional $25 million in incentives — grants, tax cuts and the like — would have to be approved by legislators.

Scott originally asked for about $230 million in incentives.

The House and Senate also agreed to find savings in the Department of Corrections, opting to close prisons, eliminate vacant positions and reduce contracts with private contractors.

Pleas from workers pushed lawmakers to save Jefferson Correctional Institute from closure, but legislators opted to push ahead with a plan to close the Hillsborough Correctional Institution.

Of the unresolved issues, preK-12 education spending will likely be the easiest to sort out. Both chambers agreed to add more than $1 billion to schools.

Higher education will be the bigger problem. How to spread $300 million in proposed budget cuts among the state's 11 universities is an issue yet to be addressed.

In the House's original spending plan, a formula was used to disperse the cuts evenly among all the universities. But Senate budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, frustrated with University of South Florida officials in his effort to turn USF's Lakeland campus into an independent university, came up with a new method that aimed the largest cuts at USF. Alexander said the cuts were commensurate in size to a school's reserves, but USF officials were quick to point out they didn't have the largest reserves.

Because of the USF situation, which also remains unresolved, many Tampa Bay lawmakers said the distribution of the cuts remains the most vexing issue left outstanding.

"That's what I'm concerned about right now," said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "We need the cuts to be proportionate."

Reaching a deal on Medicaid could be equally challenging. The Senate and House have proposed different rate cuts.

In addition, the Senate has proposed spending millions more on adult mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment.

Times/Herald staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.

Florida budget negotiators report agreement on some spending 03/03/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 3, 2012 11:11pm]

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