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Lawmakers agree on $68 billion budget, tax cuts

State House and Senate Budget Conference Committee chairs Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, left, Sen. J.D. Alexander, R- Lake Wales, right, with Rep. Darryl Rouson, D- St. Petersburg, center, talk to reporters after announcing a budget agreement Tuesday in Tallahassee.


State House and Senate Budget Conference Committee chairs Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, left, Sen. J.D. Alexander, R- Lake Wales, right, with Rep. Darryl Rouson, D- St. Petersburg, center, talk to reporters after announcing a budget agreement Tuesday in Tallahassee.

TALLAHASSEE — In secret talks, top legislators and Gov. Rick Scott hatched a $68 billion budget deal involving a rather simple trade: tax cuts for hometown spending.

So lawmakers Tuesday quickly agreed to spend, spend, spend about $156 million on their hometown districts in projects that fund county health departments, a regatta center, meals for seniors, college buildings, a botanical garden and veterans programs.

Still, there were big budget losers. Hospitals statewide will face a $510 million cut, or 12 percent, in Medicaid reimbursements. Public school funding is down by 8 percent or $540 per student. Everglades restoration money is just enough to keep replumbing the River of Grass, and thousands of state jobs are being eliminated.

Legislators focused on the positive: level funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment programs. The catastrophically sick in the Meds AD and Medically Needy programs won't face cuts either, and taxpayers will get a small property tax cut.

"I can't imagine a more difficult budget to work through," Senate budget chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said of the need to cut spending by $4 billion to cope with weak tax collections.

The full picture of the budget, all of the cuts and hometown projects, won't become clear until today, by which time the phonebook thick budget will be printed and on members' desks.

Through it all, Scott will get to sign a budget with tax cuts and business incentives that total about $308 million — one-eighth of the $2.4 billion he requested.

Scott said he negotiated with House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos over a new corporate-income tax exemption, and that the talks included saving some lawmakers' hometown spending projects.

"Everything has come up," Scott said, but he wouldn't offer examples. "I don't think that's in my best interest," he said with a laugh.

Haridopolos initially declined to include a corporate tax cut in the budget. But, in discussions with Cannon and Scott, he agreed to remove the smallest corporate taxpayers, about 15,000, at a cost to the budget of about $37 million.

Florida families will get a three-day back-to-school sales tax holiday, and taxpayers will see a minuscule property tax break on their water management district bills.

Scott said he dropped a veto threat after lawmakers agreed to the tax-and-budget deal, saying it "meets my core principles." The first-term Republican governor, who has paid special attention to tea party fiscal conservatives, is expected to veto some spending.

He said he'll decide which spending projects to veto based on a simple question: "Is it going to get our economy going?"

That's in the eye of the beholder.

Alexander, the Senate budget chief, steered $46 million to University of South Florida Polytechnic in Lakeland, a hometown project he has championed for years.

Alexander said the state has already spent about $200 million to build the school and he still speaks with bitterness about former Gov. Charlie Crist issuing a "punitive and politically motivated" veto of the project last year.

Higher education is a favorite target for hometown spending. Future House Speaker Will Weatherford will get $6.9 million more for classrooms and services at Pasco-Hernando Community College in his hometown of Wesley Chapel.

The University of Central Florida's Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government, near House Speaker Dean Cannon's Winter Park home and named for a former Orlando-area congressman, got a $200,000 boost.

Medical schools at UCF and Florida International University saw their appropriations boosted by about $2.4 million and $2.1 million, respectively.

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who has sought to work collaboratively with Republicans, is one of the few Democrats to get money in the budget. He helped secure $250,000 for addiction research at USF.

A former drug addict, Rouson also was an influential voice who spoke against cutting substance abuse treatment. "If you cut that," he said, "it ruins the entire fabric of communities."

Other new budget projects include $6 million in economic aid to the Panhandle, on top of $10 million for advertising in the wake of the oil spill that future Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville wrote into the budget.

A world-class International Regatta Sports Center in Sarasota will get $5 million. The Orlando neighborhood of Eatonville received $100,000 and the Pine Hills neighborhood $3.4 million.

State workers have little to cheer in the budget. For the fifth year in a row, rank-and-file workers will receive no pay increases and will actually lose 3 percent of their salaries as they are required to contribute to their pensions for the first time.

Legislators agreed to sock away about $2.2 billion in cash reserves for emergencies and to preserve the state's bond rating.

Library advocates were smiling after lawmakers agreed to budget $21.3 million in library grants.

The Legislature decided to cut the Office of Adoption in the governor's office, a program begun by Crist. The specter of another former governor, Jeb Bush, loomed over the budget talks as legislators decided to boost Bush's school-recognition program by $119 million, representing a 7.9 percent cut instead of the 50 percent cut they initially considered.

Lawmakers also added $5 million more for low-performing schools, $10 million more for the Everglades, $7.7 million for senior meals, $15 million to rehab National Guard armories as well as nearly $3.3 million for the Wounded Warriors veterans program.

Many of the projects popped up after private talks that stretched till 4 a.m. Tuesday. Some were designed to buy support or reward favored lawmakers and their favored constituents.

House budget chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, railed against "member projects" and the "political paybacks" of the Senate's budget plan just the day before, but she was much more conciliatory and generous Tuesday.

"When you look at the member projects, they're from the members who know their districts much better than Sen. Alexander and I know them," Grimsley said. "We obviously take input from our members."

Times/Herald staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report.

.fast facts

What's next

The state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 must be available for review for 72 hours before the Legislature can vote on it. That vote is scheduled to take place Friday evening.

Lawmakers agree on $68 billion budget, tax cuts 05/03/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 10:47pm]
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