Florida Legislature finalizes deal on state budget

TALLAHASSEE — Late and exhausted, Florida legislators finally reached an accord Monday on how to balance the proposed $65 billion state budget that touches every life in the nation's fourth most-populous state.

Lawmakers are raising a historic amount of taxes, fees, licenses and rates — about $2 billion worth — on smokers, property owners, drivers, parkgoers, sportsmen, university students and customers of state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

"It's reasonable and responsible for the times that we are in," said Miami Republican Rep. Marcelo Llorente, a House budget chief.

Pumped with $5 billion in federal stimulus cash, the budget provides a small boost in per-student spending for K-12 schools and trims Medicaid reimbursements to doctors and hospitals.

Lawmakers applied a 2 percent reduction to the salaries of state workers earning more than $45,000 yearly, and they scaled back the value of the Bright Futures Scholarship program.

After marathon weekend talks, House and Senate budget negotiators Monday cleared a final hurdle by deciding to bank half of $246 million in surplus Medicaid money for hospital charity care. The other half will be distributed to hospitals this budget year, which ends June 30.

The budget, printed Monday night, will be available for its first floor vote by Thursday night. The legislative session had been scheduled to end this past Friday but lawmakers couldn't agree on taxes, budget cuts, savings and gambling expansion.

Negotiations still aren't over. Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, will begin negotiating with House lawmakers on 32 pieces of still-unresolved legislation tied to the budget. Among them:

• A gambling expansion agreement. It could generate $300 to $500 million from gamblers.

• Tobacco money. The Senate wants to raise taxes on cigarettes by up to $1 a pack. The House has pushed to cap the amount of money that Big Tobacco has to set aside in appellate cases in lawsuits from smokers.

• Court fees. The House and Senate differ over how to raise new revenue to keep the court system operational.

• Transparency in spending and contracting. Alexander is pushing two measures to put more budget information online and to limit contracts that, he says, can become "blank checks" for big vendors.

Staff writers Amy Hollyfield and Shannon Colavecchio contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@Miami Herald.com.

Florida Legislature finalizes deal on state budget 05/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 11:40am]

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