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Senate panel approves $70 billion budget that includes federal stimulus

TALLAHASSEE — The Senate Ways and Means Committee approved a nearly $70 billion budget Thursday after fortifying it with $880 million more in hoped-for federal stimulus money from Washington.

The money would enable senators to reduce or avoid unpopular cuts to health care and education programs, and would restore $15 million of the $21 million cut in state aid to libraries.

The extra federal money could free up about $600 million in state tax money to bolster state programs.

The Senate would hike college and university tuition by 8 percent and privatize 1,350 more prison beds in the western Panhandle while shutting a like number of state-run prison beds. That would save about $20 million but end the jobs of 639 state workers, many of whom belong to the politically influential Police Benevolent Association.

Senators said many of those workers could be rehired from the money saved through privatization with the GEO Group. The Blackwater River Correctional Institution was completed last year but has not opened.

Another political fight centered on a Senate plan to cut budgets of elected court clerks by 5 percent, an idea clerks said would force hundreds of layoffs and lead to poorer service to consumers who in some counties wait in long lines to pay traffic tickets.

"I hear you," said the architect of the clerks' budget cut, Senate budget chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales. He noted the vehement resistance from the clerks who said a uniform "unit cost" budgeting system for all 67 counties was unrealistic given the wide disparities around the state in areas such as the number of foreclosures.

Alexander, who chairs the 25-member Ways and Means panel, said a proposed cut in the clerks' budget was forced by the need to close a projected $3.2 billion budget deficit. "Unlike Congress, we don't get to borrow from the Chinese," Alexander said.

The Senate budget includes a $100,000 study to determine whether counties such as Miami-Dade deserve a cost-of-living boost in public school spending, a controversial budget increase known as a district cost differential.

The study also appears in the House budget under the sponsorship of Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican running for Congress.

Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

Senate panel approves $70 billion budget that includes federal stimulus 03/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 25, 2010 8:32pm]

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