It's a wrap: Florida Legislature passes $82.3 billion budget and ends on time

Published March 11 2016
Updated March 12 2016

TALLAHASSEE — On time and in high spirits, a unified Florida Legislature finished its annual session Friday, passing the biggest budget in state history and handing one last defeat to Gov. Rick Scott by firing the state's top health official.

Lawmakers adjourned Sine Die at 6:46 p.m. as hundreds of people cheered the dropping of two handkerchiefs to the Capitol's terrazzo floor that traditionally marks the end of the session.

If Scott was disappointed in the rejection of his priorities by his fellow Republicans, he didn't show it.

At a post-session gathering with legislative leaders, Scott repeatedly used the pronoun "we," praised them for "a good budget" and dismissed talk that the Legislature might return for a special session to override his line-item vetoes.

"I'm going to look for duplicative services. I'm going to look for things where we can save money, where we can't get a return on investment. But I think we have a good budget," Scott said.

Speculation has been rampant that Scott would use his veto pen more aggressively than ever, and lawmakers in a sign of emerging bipartisanship have talked about getting even with him by overturning his vetoes. But that scenario seems much less likely after Scott's conciliatory tone.

"I haven't heard anything about that and I'm hoping not to," said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.

Scott also announced plans to invite legislators to join him on a five-city victory tour next Monday, including stops in Tampa and Miami, to tout $1 billion in tax cuts over two years.

The governor claims he kept his promise to cut taxes by $1 billion over a two-year period. But to make that claim, he must include a reduction of $428 million in local property taxes that he strongly opposed when the Senate proposed it — as a way to prevent Scott from raising local property tax hike that helps pay for schools.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said Scott "technically" accomplished his $1 billion-over-two-years goal when the local property tax cut is included.

Lee conceded that the budget is again stuffed with "pork" in the form of aquariums, festivals, museums, parks and water projects, designed in part to make politicians look good back home in an election year.

Scott last year vetoed a record $461.4 million, much of it for hometown projects in lawmakers' districts.

With only a single "no" vote, both houses passed an $82.3 billion budget that's nearly $4 billion more than the current budget and $3 billion more than Scott had proposed.

For the first time in memory, every Democrat in both houses voted for a budget written by Republicans.

"We listened to what you said," Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told Democrats.

Only Republican Rep. John Tobia of Melbourne Beach voted against the budget.

Democrats took credit for the defeat of Scott's agenda.

"We reclaimed our place in the checks and balances of our democracy by reining in a governor who's out of touch with the people," said Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa.

On the environment, legislators sent a message to voters Friday that they are committed to helping the state's ailing Everglades ecosystem and polluted springs by passing a bill that will carve out at least $250 million a year for those programs for the next 20 years.

The so-called Legacy Florida Act builds on Amendment 1 that voters approved by a 75 percent margin in 2014 and earmarks part of that money for the state's most fragile ecosystems.

It was the last bill that passed.

"This is an historic commitment by the Florida Legislature,'' said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, sponsor of the bill. "Tell my constituents, 'Help is on the way.'"

In one of the final moves of the session, Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, persuaded the House to require insurance companies to offer coverage for people with Down Syndrome.

Gardiner and his wife, Camille, have a son, Andrew, with down syndrome, and he has been a popular presence in the Capitol this session. Gardiner first proposed the Down Syndrome mandate on the closing night of a House session eight years ago when Marco Rubio was speaker, but was unsuccessful.

Gardiner, who will leave office in November, has made expansion of programs and services for people with unique abilities the hallmark of his two-year agenda as Senate president, and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said he quickly agreed.

"We were happy to oblige," Crisafulli said.

The peaceful conclusion to the election-year session was a marked contrast from the rancor and Republican infighting of a year ago that led to a meltdown over the budget and forced three special sessions.

But with all 160 legislative seats up for grabs in the fall elections, lawmakers were well-behaved and did as little as possible to antagonize voters back home.

The 2016 session may have been the last opportunity for Scott to achieve his goals of cutting taxes and creating new incentives to attract jobs. Scott struck out in his high-profile efforts to win approval for a new $250 million fund for Enterprise Florida to recruit companies to Florida.

By November, a new team of legislators will be in charge, and led in the House by Corcoran, who likened Scott's incentive fund to "corporate welfare" and voted against a bill to set up a framework for how the money would be spent.

By the time the next session begins in March 2017, the next campaign for governor will be underway.

Scott's final defeat unfolded in silence at the close of session.

As the handkerchiefs fell to the floor Friday, one of Scott's most trusted advisers lost his job. For the first time in 21 years, the Senate failed to confirm a state agency head within the required two years.

Sent packing was Dr. John Armstrong, a former top health official at USF who served as surgeon general and secretary of the Department of Health, even as he battles colon cancer. Scott named Dr. Celeste Philip, the agency's second-in-command, as acting surgeon general.

"He decided to move on," Scott said of Armstrong. "He's going to do well."

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporters Michael Auslen, Kristen M. Clark, Jeremy Wallace and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] Follow @stevebousquet.

 
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