Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Politics

Florida House and Senate approve budgets at odds with each other and Gov. Rick Scott

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TALLAHASSEE — The Senate and House on Thursday passed differing versions of a state budget but with the common theme of opposition to Gov. Rick Scott's biggest priorities.

The Senate declared Scott's goal of $1 billion in tax cuts dead on arrival and "fiscally irresponsible" in the words of its top budget writer, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon. Across the hall in the Capitol, the House showed no interest in Scott's other priority of a three-year, $250 million incentive fund to close deals with businesses that want to move to Florida.

"We don't have additional funding for new incentives in this budget," said Rep. Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola.

Both chambers adopted budgets that reflect Republican goals of more money for schools, a smaller state workforce, and no new taxes or tuition increases.

Democrats said the spending plans fail to improve chronic problems such as underpaid state workers, staff shortages in prisons and long waiting lists for state services for the sick and elderly.

"Any life that we lose is one too many," said Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, citing a report by Politico Florida that 6,538 people died while on waiting lists for services in programs to keep the elderly in community or home care and out of nursing homes.

The report was based on state data from the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

House Democrats criticized Republicans for including a ban on future funding for Planned Parenthood. "A slur," said Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, of a ban that's not in the Senate budget and likely won't be.

Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, faulted Republicans for ignoring the need for more people to get health insurance coverage. She criticized the elimination of hundreds of vacant positions in the Department of Health when South Florida leads the nation in new HIV infections, as the Times/Herald has reported.

"It shouldn't be a surprise that Florida is surging to the top of preventable diseases,'' Cruz said.

The House passed its budget on a vote of 85-29, and the Senate vote was 40-0.

Despite their policy differences, lawmakers who must face voters this fall are mindful of the need to behave and reach agreement faster and more amicably than last year, when bitter infighting led to an abrupt walkout by the House and forced a three-week special session on the budget.

Tax cuts, business incentives and dozens of other budget issues will be used as bargaining chips in the weeks ahead.

"That's the art of a compromise, to find out where we can match up," said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

But with four weeks to go in the current nine-week session, the legislative resistance to tax cuts and incentive money will nudge Scott to engage more directly with his fellow Republicans, who make the key budget decisions.

Scott said legislators should pass his priorities because he has already supported theirs.

"The speaker had his priority, the water bill. It passed and I signed it," Scott told reporters in Tampa this week. "The Senate president's priority was the (Andy) Gardiner scholarships for individuals with unique abilities. They passed it and I signed it. I'm very comfortable that they know my priorities."

But another budget problem for Scott became glaringly obvious Thursday in an emerging battle with the Senate over how to pay for a big increase in per-pupil spending in public schools.

Scott and legislators agree on increasing K-12 spending, especially with a projected increase of more than 35,000 students next fall.

But the Senate is pushing a plan to reduce Scott's reliance on higher property tax payments for homeowners and businesses by replacing it with an infusion of $326 million in state tax revenue, which is $183 million more in state taxes than the proposed Senate budget.

Doing that, however, would leave even less money available for tax cuts. The House and Scott oppose the idea, with Scott's office calling senators "flat wrong" to describe as a tax increase higher property tax bills tied to rising property values.

Scott's demand for $1 billion in tax cuts is more than a political goal. It's an unfulfilled promise from his 2014 re-election campaign, when he pledged $1 billion in tax cuts over two years.

Crisafulli said the House and Senate must agree on a specific amount of tax cuts that are permanent or recurring.

The House has embraced most of Scott's tax cut ideas, except for the elimination of the corporate income tax on retailers and manufacturers, and has added many ideas of its own in a wide-ranging package that affects renewable energy, hunters and fishermen, college students and cider made from pears.

The House's biggest single tax cut is reducing by two percentage points over two years the 6 percent sales tax on commercial rents.

That tax cut would take $410 million out of the state treasury in the first year, with most of that a permanent cut. Lee, the Senate's budget chief, said such recurring tax cuts are "not sustainable" because they will create budget gaps in future years that will bind future Legislatures.

The Senate has not yet crafted a tax cut package.

"Who's the more responsible individual?" Lee asked senators. "Is it the person who cuts the most taxes? Or is it the person who lives within their means?"

Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen, Mary Ellen Klas, Thaddeus Moore and Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report and information from the News Service of Florida was used. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct a quote from House Speaker Steve Crisafulli.

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