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  1. Florida Politics

Five budget fights to watch as Scott, lawmakers collide on spending $83.5 billion

Students take their seats before the start of the USF St. Petersburg fall commencement ceremony at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Dec. 13, 2015. Universities are in the House's crosshairs for the 2017-2018 state budget. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Mar. 26, 2017

By STEVE BOUSQUET

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature have battled repeatedly over jobs and tourism spending for weeks, but a fight with much higher stakes is brewing.

The state budget.

The House and Senate will propose separate budgets of their own for Florida's 20 million residents this upcoming week.

Scott's plan is to spend $83.5 billion, more than $1.5 billion higher than the current budget.

But lawmakers have other ideas, beginning with House Speaker Richard Corcoran's demand to slow spending.

The House wants to cut spending by $1.4 billion next year, with the deepest cuts expected to hit hospitals and higher education and the elimination of economic development programs run by Enterprise Florida.

The latter idea is not getting any traction in the Senate, which wants to spend more on universities and environmental protection.

The Legislature's likely winners include charter schools, correctional officers and sworn law enforcement officers, in line for their first big raises in years.

Likely losers include hospitals, state colleges and universities.

Eventually, the budget debate will be back where it started, with Corcoran insisting on the end of Enterprise Florida and deep cuts to tourism marketing at Visit Florida against steep odds in the Senate, and in the face of Scott's fierce opposition.

"Whatever those consequences are, good or bad, we don't care," Corcoran said. "That's why you elected us."

1. HIGHER EDUCATION

Senate President Joe Negron wants this to be the year that the state's 12 universities get $1 billion in new money to help the flagship state schools move "from good to great."

Not likely. The House is determined to punish the schools for what it says is a misuse of taxpayers' money to boost private campus foundations and to pay for excessive travel and salaries, all at the expense of student aid.

"We're saying, 'You cheated. You got caught with your pants down,'" Corcoran says.

The House will insist that universities spend some of more than $800 million in cash reserves next year to lessen the impact of budget cuts.

More unsettling news: Corcoran's resistance to borrowing will mean all construction and maintenance at colleges and universities must be paid with cash.

2. TAX CUTS

This is a difficult year to be pushing tax cuts because the state has little extra money.

Scott wants $618 million in tax relief, most of it a 25 percent cut in the 6 percent statewide sales tax on commercial rents at an estimated savings of $454 million.

He has also asked for four separate sales tax holidays, including 10 days for back-to-school items, that would save taxpayers another $98 million.

The Senate's tax cut priority is repealing a 1987 salary tax credit for insurance companies and spending the new money on a dollar-for-dollar decline in the commercial rent tax.

That may appeal to Scott, but it's a non-starter in the House, where Republicans want to cut spending in all areas and lower property taxes.

3. PUBLIC SCHOOLS

A major clash is looming over how to pay for a boost in spending in public schools.

Scott proposed a budget with a 3 percent boost in spending, to $7,421 per student, but two-thirds of the increase, or about $558 million, comes from higher property tax payments paid by homeowners and business owners as a result of increased property values, even if the tax rate stays unchanged.

That has renewed a fight over what constitutes a tax hike.

"That's a 'hell no,' " Corcoran said.

To meet Scott's goal, the House would have to redirect $558 million more from state taxes to schools.

Scott says increased property values is positive, and the Senate agrees with him. A half-billion-dollar difference of opinion is more than enough to grind the session to a halt.

4. EVERGLADES

Calling the pollution of Florida waters a catastrophe, Negron wants the Legislature to acquire 60,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee for a reservoir to hold a massive amount of water.

The goal is to reduce discharges that have contaminated waterways on both Florida coasts and forced Scott to declare a state of emergency last year.

Expanding water storage has been in the talking stage for more than 20 years. Negron's plan would cost at least $2.4 billion, with the federal government paying a share.

"The time for action is now," he said.

But sugar cane growers such as U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, who own some of the biggest parcels south of the lake, have said they won't sell their land willingly.

5. STATE WORKERS

Florida has the fewest full-time state workers per 10,000 residents of any state, and about half as many (87) as the national average (169).

Employees have had just one across-the-board raise in the past decade, in 2013. The average salary of state workers is $37,000 for men and $34,000 for women.

With rampant turnover and dangerous staff shortages, a consensus has emerged to give correctional officers previously unheard-of raises of between 8.5 and 10 percent.

Scott, who first proposed those raises, also wants to give 5 percent raises to about 4,000 state law enforcement officers, about half of whom work at the Florida Highway Patrol where turnover is high.

Scott favors incentive bonuses for most state workers, not across-the-board raises.

They probably won't get a pay raise again this year unless the Legislature demands it.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet

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