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House, Senate approve budget plans; now the dealing begins

At center, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, asks for applause to be lowered after leading a budget bill into passage Thursday on the floor of the Senate in Tallahassee.

Associated Press

At center, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, asks for applause to be lowered after leading a budget bill into passage Thursday on the floor of the Senate in Tallahassee.

TALLAHASSEE — With broad bipartisan support, lawmakers approved rival $75 billion state budgets Thursday that include a $500 million package of tax cuts and fees and the highest overall spending on education in Florida history.

Benefiting from a surplus of about $1.2 billion, the largest in an election year since 2006, the House and Senate budgets have sailed through with little rancor within the chambers — and relatively small differences between their plans and that of Gov. Rick Scott.

The House approved its $75.3 billion budget early Thursday afternoon by a 100-16 vote. All the nays were from Democrats, though even more Democrats voted for it. Senators approved their proposed $74.9 billion budget 37-2. Both nays were Democrats.

Lawmakers have until May 2 to haggle over their differences, but there are so few, they are planning to take much of the week of April 14 off for the Passover and Good Friday holidays.

"There's no contention," said Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford. "Now, that may not be that exciting for some people to watch, but the truth is, we're working very well together."

House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said that the lack of friction helps Republicans.

"Their focus is to make this session less hectic to help reelect this governor," Thurston said.

But the lack of legislative friction is deceiving. Take the largest portion of the budget, health and human services. Because Democrats are so badly outnumbered in the Legislature, they have no leverage to push for expanding Medicaid, even though the federal government would foot most of the bill. So it wasn't a point of debate this year.

Meanwhile, there's uncertainty about the state's existing Medicaid program. Florida's application to renew its Medicaid managed care program is still pending. Without official word from the federal government, the House and Senate versions of the budget have mostly kept the status quo.

"We still have work to do," said Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, who along with Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, voted against the budget in the Senate.

Republican lawmakers gushed over education spending.

"This budget makes incredible strides toward funding education, and shows the importance that this body places on education," said state Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah.

The House plan hikes per-student spending by about 3 percent to $6,988, which edges Gov. Rick Scott's and the Senate's proposal by about $35 per student. All three, however, fall short of the all-time high in per student spending: $7,126 in 2007-08.

Bigger differences are to be found in spending for school construction and maintenance.

The House budget sets aside $100 million in Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) funds for charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded. That's double what traditional public schools would receive.

The inequity irked Democrats, who argue that charter school facilities are not public assets and should not receive public dollars.

"We still have a situation where the public schools decay while the charter schools play," said Rep. Mark Danish, D-Tampa.

Scott and the Senate handle PECO differently. The Senate is proposing less: $50 million for charter schools and $40 million for traditional public schools. Scott's proposal doles out $80 million to traditional schools plus an additional $72 million to be shared by seven small districts. About $91 million would be available to charter schools, but new charter schools would have to serve at-risk students to be eligible for the money.

In higher education, Scott, the House and the Senate are each proposing roughly $1.2 billion for state colleges and $4.3 billion for the state university system (including tuition).

Each of the three takes a different approach to performance incentives. The House, for example, sets aside $75 million for university performance funding and $5 million for college performance funding. The Senate wants $200 million for universities and $30 million for colleges. Scott is proposing $80 million for each.

Both chambers have already agreed on a $395 million reduction of auto registration fees that Scott signed into law on Wednesday. Rounding out the remaining $500 million in cuts is a combination of tax cuts and fee reductions that Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, described as a "patchwork of awesomeness."

"This gives money back to the citizens where it belongs," he said.

The House and Senate agree on sales tax holidays for school supplies, for three days in August, that would cost about $39 million, and on hurricane supplies, which would cost about $3.6 million.

Both proposals are peppered with pet projects. While there has been little tension to spill into public view, that could change.

Blame it on expectations. Even with a big surplus, in an election year no less, demand for funding hometown projects is far surpassing the supply of cash.

As the chair of a Senate appropriations committee, Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, said he has fielded requests for more than $326 million in local water projects — with only $43 million available.

"That's a big difference," said Hays.

Staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected]abay.com.

House, Senate approve budget plans; now the dealing begins 04/03/14 [Last modified: Thursday, April 3, 2014 9:57pm]
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