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State's $66.5 billion budget is done, by nickels, dimes and a pile of stimulus cash

Where you might feel it

Here are some of the major fee increases, which begin to take effect on July 1, in the state budget the Legislature approved Friday. Lawmakers defend the increases as long overdue.

$48 New cost of original driver's license, now $27

$48 New cost of license renewal, now $27

$25 New cost of a replacement license, now $10

$396 New fee for filing a circuit civil case, now $295

$7.50 Cost of an annual saltwater shoreline license; currently no license needed

Source: Florida Legislature

TALLAHASSEE — The Legislature passed a $66.5 billion state budget Friday, ending a session that was a week late and $6 billion short until the federal government, Florida taxpayers and gamblers came to the rescue.

In a subdued but fitting end to a grueling 10-week session, a sparse crowd of about 200 people saw the ceremonial dropping of two handkerchiefs that signifies sine die, or the session's end. Time: 2:57 p.m. Gov. Charlie Crist described lawmakers' work as "unbelievable" and "tremendous."

"It's important to take a little more time to get it right and you got it right," Crist told the legislators.

Lawmakers balanced the budget with an infusion of $5 billion in federal stimulus money and $2.2 billion cobbled together through an expansive nickel-and-dime effort to raise scores of fees and taxes.

Lawmakers swept $600 million from specialized spending accounts known as trust funds and slashed $1 billion in state spending, making next year's budget $3 billion smaller than the current year's, which itself is fortified with $4 billion in stimulus money.

Although the budget carries cash reserves to prevent the state's credit rating from suffering, all the new money and spending cuts still might not be enough to keep things in balance if the economy continues to spiral downward.

The disastrous economy forced conservative Republicans to abandon their opposition to higher taxes and more gambling.

Motorists will pay more to renew drivers' licenses and car registrations and get copies of accident reports, titles and ID cards. It's the biggest jump in vehicle fees in decades.

Smokers will pay $1 more for a pack of cigarettes, and state workers who earn more than $45,000 a year will get a 2 percent pay cut after three years of not getting raises. Thousands of slot machines and card games at Indian reservations and existing gambling dens will fortify cash reserves for future emergencies.

"Given where we are, I think it's as good a budget as we could possibly have developed," said Sen. J.D. Alexander, the Lake Wales Republican who had a bigger role in shaping the budget than any other lawmaker. "I believe in my heart of hearts it will keep our state functioning and moving forward through this most challenging time."

On the budget, Republican legislators boasted about what they did not do: cut public school budgets or eligibility for Medicaid, an exploding federal-state health program serving 2.6 million of the state's youngest, oldest and poorest. Federal rules for taking the stimulus prevented Tallahassee from cutting those programs.

The GOP majority did shift $780 million out of health care after plugging in Medicaid stimulus money, a move that Democratic Sen. Nan Rich of Weston called a "bait and switch" because tens of thousands of people will continue to languish on waiting lists for in-home care, community care and Alzheimer's treatment.

The first extended regular session in seven years devolved into tense partisanship on its final day. All 14 Senate Democrats threatened to vote against a budget they called inadequate.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, called the budget "sorry," and Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, infuriated her Republican colleagues by saying: "We have got to stand taller and fight the House. They seem to win every time."

Despite those remarks, Wilson voted for the budget which passed the Senate, 32-8, as seven of the 14 Democrats broke their own caucus position to vote no. Republican Sen. Ronda Storms of Valrico also opposed the budget.

"It is a mistake to fund our budget with gambling money," Storms said.

The House approved the budget on a 75 to 43 vote, with all Republicans voting yes and all Democrats voting no.

In a symbolic gesture, legislators cut their own salaries 7 percent. But that continues a 5 percent cut from the current year, making the new cut 2 percent of their current pay. They also steered savings from state workers' pay cuts into the state's health insurance program so that rank-and-file workers won't have to pay higher premiums.

Legislators refused to eliminate free health insurance coverage that they and 26,000 select state workers receive at a cost to taxpayers of about $44 million a year.

For weeks, Republicans have praised a budget that they say holds education funding steady with a small increase in per-student spending. "We increased education spending in a year when we had to cut the budget by billions of dollars," said Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami.

While the $6,873 per-student spending for next year is about $28 higher than the current budget, it only looks like an increase because of the cut the governor imposed last June, reducing current-year spending from $6,997.

Technically this new budget is an increase, but that masks a recent downward trend in public school spending, which peaked at $7,126 per pupil in 2007-08. Next year's per-student funding is boosted by nearly $1 billion in stimulus money, pending federal approval of a waiver from funding levels that Florida hasn't met. Without the federal money, per-student spending would be $6,413, a figure closer to 2005-06 levels.

State Senate

Here is how bay area members of the Florida Senate voted on the state budget Friday:

Victor Crist, R-Tampa Y
Charlie Dean, R-Inverness Y
Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland Y
Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey Y
Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island Y
Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa N
Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg N
Ronda Storms, R-Valrico N

State House

How bay area members of the House voted:

Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa Y
Tom Anderson, R-Holiday Y
Rachel Burgin, R-Tampa Y
Faye Culp, R-Tampa Y
Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg Y
Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton Y
Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City Y
Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater Y
John Legg, R-Port Richey Y
Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland Y
Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs Y
Ron Reagan, R-Sarasota Y
Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill Y
Ron Schultz, R-Homosassa Y
Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel Y
Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg N
Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg N
Janet Long, D-St. Petersburg N
Betty Reed, D-Tampa N
Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg N
Michael Scionti, D-Tampa N

Did not vote: Ed Homan, R-Temple Terrace

State's $66.5 billion budget is done, by nickels, dimes and a pile of stimulus cash 05/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 10:47am]
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