Thursday, September 20, 2018
Politics

Two months late, Florida lawmakers approve state budget

TALLAHASSEE — After flirting with fiscal disaster, the Florida Legislature finally passed a state budget Friday, two months late and many millions of dollars short of what Gov. Rick Scott promised voters.

The $78.7 billion spending plan has less money for schools per student and more modest tax cuts than Scott had sought in a year when the state had a $1.4 billion surplus. But lawmakers steered $400 million to hospitals to offset a loss of federal money for the cost of treating poor and uninsured patients.

The Senate passed the budget 37-0 at 5:39 p.m., and the House followed with a 96-17 vote at 6:24 p.m.

The three-week special session ended just before 7 p.m. in an unusually quiet Capitol, seven weeks after a regular session collapsed in chaos in a Republican family feud over health care. That prompted Scott to issue doomsday warnings of a possible government shutdown, which lawmakers avoided by passing a budget less than two weeks before the end of the fiscal year.

The budget pays for a major new USF medical school campus in downtown Tampa, continues a college and university tuition freeze, and sets aside $3 billion in reserves to preserve the state's AAA bond rating.

State workers, some of whom qualify for food stamps, once again won't get a pay raise. Florida won't expand health care to the uninsured. About 1,000 more jobs will be eliminated, many of them vacant.

Adults and children with disabilities are among the budget's biggest winners. Florida will spend $230 million more next year for housing, scholarships, tuition and other services — a priority of Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

But the budget is a bitter disappointment to supporters of Amendment 1, the land and water conservation initiative that 75 percent of voters supported last November.

Amendment 1 requires earmarking $743 million for the environment next year, but lawmakers set aside $55 million to acquire land, $50 million for springs restoration and $224 million for state agency salaries and operations.

Environmentalists wanted the state to buy land owned by U.S. Sugar south of Lake Okeechobee to store and refresh water that flows to the Everglades, and they are likely to sue the Legislature as soon as next week.

"They've turned their back on the public while they've had their hands out to Big Sugar," said Mary Barley, president of the Everglades Trust. "We must hold our elected officials accountable."

For now, it's Scott's turn to hold the Legislature accountable.

He must sign the budget by June 30 and decide whether to approve or veto hundreds of millions of dollars in parochial spending approved by Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

In a high-stakes game of horse-trading, the two leaders agreed on $300 million in projects at the last minute with virtually no public discussion.

"Pork … under the cover of night," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach. "I have a problem seeing that as transparency."

After the rush of late-night spending, even the lawmaker at the center of it all, Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, called the result "far from perfect."

"I would tell the governor to go forth boldly and veto," Lee's counterpart, House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, said when asked if he thinks the governor will veto much in the budget.

Tensions between the chambers flared anew Friday.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, criticized House leaders for a "double standard" by opposing incentives for film productions and pro sports stadiums while insisting on money for projects "owned by millionaires that have a large entry fee, large tuitions or whatever. That's just plain wrong."

The reference was to a Crisafulli priority: a last-minute $2 million for IMG Academy, an elite for-profit private school in Bradenton that trains aspiring pro athletes where the annual tuition can top $80,000.

Senators also vented their frustration with Scott's Department of Economic Opportunity, which has been slow to approve money for local economic development projects the Legislature approved last year.

Scott didn't hear the criticism. After keeping his distance from the Capitol for most of both sessions, he was not around when lawmakers adjourned sine die at 6:50 p.m.

The session ended with the return of a tradition begun in 1923, the ceremonial dropping of handkerchiefs in the fourth-floor rotunda by the sergeants-at-arms. It was a farewell salute to Senate Sergeant Donald Severance, who will retire in the fall after a four-decade career.

Republicans congratulated themselves on a job well done.

"I'm voting for this budget because it puts our students first," said Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah.

A total of 16 House Democrats and one Republican, Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, voted against the budget. The Democrats cited House Republicans' refusal to support health care expansion, the lack of an across-the-board pay raise for state workers, no new judges or misplaced priorities.

Democrats said the Republicans' much-touted tax cuts of $427 million are outweighed by $494 million more that Floridians will pay in property taxes to meet the Legislature's school funding target.

"To claim that we're cutting taxes is not accurate," said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami.

"Not extending access to health care to so many hundreds of thousands of our fellow Floridians by itself is just about a fatal flaw," said Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura.

The special session has cost taxpayers an estimated $1.5 million. Not since 1992 have lawmakers come so close to ending the fiscal year without a new budget in place.

It's believed to be the first legislative session in Florida's 170-year history in which one chamber's actions were ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

To the surprise of many of its members, the House unexpectedly closed its doors and adjourned on April 28, bringing the regular session to an abrupt halt.

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the House violated a provision that prevents one chamber from adjourning for more than 72 hours.

Lawmakers will return to the Capitol for up to six weeks of committee meetings in the fall in preparation for the next regular session that begins on Jan. 5, 2016.

For now, legislators are eager to head home and get away from Tallahassee, notorious for its sweltering heat and oppressive humidity this time of year and where the heat index Friday was 101 degrees.

"Not exactly a resort destination, is it?" Lee joked.

Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen, Mary Ellen Klas and Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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