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Florida House, Senate remain far apart on budget

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature will return to work after Easter with most major spending decisions unresolved as time becomes a factor in the session's home stretch.

Taxpayers don't yet know whether they will pay more in property taxes to run schools next year, or how much they might save in tax cuts.

Hospitals and universities are bracing for possible reductions, and state workers are waiting to learn whether they will get a pay raise for just the second time in the past 10 years.

Gov. Rick Scott doesn't know if tourism ad spending will take a major hit, or whether Enterprise Florida will survive for one more year of spending tax incentives to draw businesses to the state.

The Republican legislative leaders, House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes and Senate President Joe Negron of Stuart, are lawyers who know how to close deals and both say they are on track to resolve the budget on time.

"I feel optimistic about House and Senate priorities being considered," Negron said.

Amid some partisanship, the Republican House on Thursday voted 89-26 to adopt an $81.2 billion budget that's $4 billion less than the Senate's, because senators spend about $2 billion more and haven't included about $2 billion in college student tuition to their bottom line total.

The current budget is $82.3 billion.

The Senate, which passed its budget on a 39-0 vote, spends more on elementary and higher education, with an increase for public schools of $209 per student or 2.91 percent. The House would boost it by about $19 per pupil, or 0.27 percent.

The state projects 27,000 more students next fall.

House Democrats accused Republicans of short-changing public schools and shifting hundreds of millions of dollars to charter schools.

Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, criticized planned cuts to affordable housing and tourism marketing and a stingy approach to schools, and said the state's revenue picture is brighter than Republicans say it is.

Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, assailed lax state oversight in the management of seven private for-profit prisons. A retired forensic auditor who has repeatedly visited prisons, Richardson says lawmakers must demand audits of private prisons that "fudge" their numbers to hide profits.

"The taxpayers back home don't have a lobbyist here. But they do. It's you, and it's me," Richardson said.

A significant difference is whether lawmakers will boost school spending by taking advantage of growing property values, even with no increase in the tax rate.

The Senate says yes, to the tune of $535 million.

The House says no and says that would be a tax increase.

"We're not raising taxes," Corcoran has said repeatedly.

Even with a smaller budget, the House has two education initiatives not in the Senate budget: $214 million for a controversial bonus program for teachers, and $200 million to attract charter school operators to areas with failing public schools.

On health care, the House makes deeper cuts to hospitals than does the Senate, but the bottom line is in flux after the Trump administration told the state Wednesday that it can expect $1.5 billion for next year to help hospitals care for low-income patients.

On economic development, the Senate is closer to Scott's requests, with more than $80 million for Enterprise Florida's array of programs and $76 million to Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency.

The House wipes out Enterprise Florida and cuts tourism ad spending to $25 million.

The Senate spends $220 million on state worker raises.

Employees who make $40,000 a year or less would get a $1,400 raise, and employees who earn more would get a $1,000 pay increase.

"For far too long, our state employees have gone without an increase in their pay," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

The House is more in line with Scott's budget by targeting select groups of workers, including correctional officers and state law enforcement officers.

The next hurdle is for the two chambers to agree on allocations, the bottom-line spending totals in education, health care, transportation and other areas.

With three weeks left in the nine-week session, a Senate-House conference committee could begin work late next week. Work on a final budget must be complete no later than May 2 for the session to end on time on May 5.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.

Florida House, Senate remain far apart on budget 04/13/17 [Last modified: Thursday, April 13, 2017 9:24pm]
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