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Florida lawmakers' $75 billion spending plan stalls

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers stalled in their negotiations Saturday to agree on Florida's proposed $75 billion budget, which includes an all-time high of $11 billion for K-12 education and $500 million in tax and fee cuts.

Unlike prior years when lawmakers faced deficits, budget talks this year have progressed with little drama or discord. Yet despite the smooth facade on this year's negotiations, a public meeting between Senate and House budget leaders was scrapped Saturday with no explanation.

The cancellation slowed progress of budget talks that, as of Friday, had seemed to be going smoothly.

What snagged the talks is unclear, but Republican leaders spent much of Saturday negotiating construction and maintenance projects funded by the Public Education Capital Outlay trust fund, one of several issues that have complicated this year's budget.

Since the economic downturn, PECO has become one of the most controversial items in the state budget.

In previous years, the PECO fund supplied hundreds of millions of dollars to school systems for capital projects. But as tax revenues that fund PECO have declined, there have been fewer dollars to go around. Meanwhile, the bulk has gone to charter schools.

Last year, charter schools received $91 million in PECO funding while public schools received nothing.

This year, the Senate and House calculated the amount of available PECO funds differently. The two chambers also had different plans divvying up the money.

The House has recommended spending $100 million in PECO dollars on charter schools and $50 million on traditional public schools. The Senate, meanwhile, wants to spend $50 million on charter schools and $40 million on traditional public schools.

Senate and House leaders couldn't be reached after the announcement of the canceled meeting was emailed to reporters after 7 p.m., so any differences on PECO and other issues could be resolved by Sunday, giving lawmakers plenty of time to hash out the remainder of the budget by Tuesday, when it's due on the desks of the state's 160 lawmakers. That gives them the required 72 hour "cooling off period" to read and consider the budget before they are required by law to pass it Friday, the final day of the 2014 session.

Other differences between the two chambers are also in the $20.6 billion public education budget.

Negotiations got frosty earlier in the week after House Education Appropriations Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, refused a conditional offer from his counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

But by Saturday, many details of the K-12 budget were close to being finalized, including a proposed 2.7 percent increase in per-pupil spending. The boost would drive funding to about $6,963 per student, still short of the record high $7,126 in 2007-08.

There was also consensus on technology funding. The House had wanted to invest about $70 million into infrastructure improvements, some of which would have been funneled through the state-run Florida Information Resource Network. But the Senate prevailed with its plan to spend $40 million and give school districts more flexibility.

Some big-ticket education items, however, were left unresolved.

The chambers had yet to agree on funding for proposed "personal learning scholarship accounts" that would reimburse the parents of special-needs students for educational expenses. The Senate has said the measure will cost $18.4 million. The House believes the price tag is $8.8 million, but did not include funding in its budget proposal.

"Every budget year is unique," said Galvano on Saturday afternoon. "This year it just seemed that education had the most complicated issues."

The House and the Senate must still agree on how to dole out $200 million in performance funding to 11 state universities.

A second disagreement on higher education spending is the proposed split of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, which is backed by Sen. John Thrasher. Thrasher, an FSU alum rumored to be eyeing the university's vacant presidency, said he is not giving up his fight for $3 million in new operating dollars and $10 million in capital outlay funds for a duplicate engineering program at his alma mater, despite a rumored cool reception from House leadership.

So far, the House has refused to even negotiate on the issue, offering no additional operating funding for FSU to begin planning for a split of the 32-year-old joint engineering school.

Meanwhile, on health care, with the expansion of Medicaid a non-issue for the second straight year, there were few major conflicts. The two chambers disagree on how much new funding to invest in reducing the waiting list of Florida residents who have applied to receive Medicaid coverage for assisted living facilities or home health care. The House wants $19.9 million; the Senate offered $15.4 million.

Other differences in the budget involve pet projects.

The Senate wants $10 million for University of West Florida's Office of Economic Development and Engagement, money that Senate President Don Gaetz's office says is linked to the Oil Spill Recovery Act. Gaetz's district is also a short drive away from UWF. The House budget, however, does not have any money for that program.

The House, meanwhile, has $7 million earmarked for a first-time ever investment in Jacksonville University, Weatherford's alma mater. The Senate is only offering $1 million.

Florida lawmakers' $75 billion spending plan stalls 04/26/14 [Last modified: Sunday, April 27, 2014 1:31am]
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