TALLAHASSEE — On a party-line, election-year vote, House Republicans on Thursday pushed through their blueprint for spending $67.2 billion next year, most of it for education, health care, transportation and public safety.
By a 74-44 vote, the House sent its budget plan to the Senate, setting the stage for lengthy negotiations between the two chambers who must agree on a compromise by April 30 and send it to Gov. Charlie Crist.
Unlike last year, when the Legislature raised taxes and fees by $2.2 billion, mostly on motorists and smokers, an election year has produced a firm opposition to raising more revenue.
Struggling to plug a revenue shortfall of $3.2 billion, lawmakers endorsed an increase in college tuition of at least 8 percent, with another 7 percent at the discretion of each school. Support to universities and community colleges would drop by 2.5 percent. State workers could face salary cuts of up to 3 percent, at the discretion of agency heads.
The House budget is fortified by $2.4 billion in federal stimulus money, a third of which is allocated to public schools. Yet the House lowers per-pupil public school spending by less than 1 percent — the first such decrease in five years and one of many painful political choices confronting Republicans, who called that a major accomplishment during such bleak economic times.
"I don't want anyone to think this is an attack on education," said Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, the lead House education budget writer. "The fact is, Floridians have less money, and when Floridians have less money, government should have less money."
At a time of record unemployment and housing foreclosures in Florida, Republicans said it makes no sense to impose additional tax burdens. "Raising taxes is not an option," said Rep. Esteban Bovo, R-Hialeah.
Democrats, powerless to influence spending decisions, decried the small drop in public school funding as well as cuts to public defenders and prosecutors. They cited less money for stipends for older foster children, another round of cuts in reimbursement rates to pharmacies and hospitals and the loss of Medicaid coverage to an estimated 5,800 poor pregnant women each month.
"This budget fails Florida families, small businesses, our children, our own employees, and our elderly retired citizens," said Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, decrying planned cuts in pension benefits to current and retired government workers who rely on a state pension program.
Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, read a letter from James Goodnow, who said he's quitting after seven years as a prosecutor in the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office because of "continuous threats by the Legislature to cut the budget, salaries and benefits of prosecutors."
The House's budget is about $2.7 billion smaller than the Senate's, mainly for three reasons. The House has not allocated $880 million in supplemental federal Medicaid money that the Senate spends, and does not assume that all 67 county school boards will levy an additional property tax increase, which would generate $349 million. The House also does not allocate more than $400 million from an expected gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that awaits final approval by the Legislature.
"Putting forward a draconian budget excluding these dollars equates to ideology and posturing," said Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, referring to the federal Medicaid money and gambling proceeds.
Times/Herald staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.