Florida Senate and House pass rival spending bills

NP-StateNewsBy Gary Fineout, Associated Press

Tallahassee, Fla. (AP) — Flush with plenty of extra cash during an election year, the House and Senate on Thursday passed rival versions of a new state budget that spends more money on child protection, health care for the disabled and public schools.

But there remain key differences between the two chambers over everything from the role of state colleges and spending on school and college construction, to how much money to spend on environmental programs.

Unlike in years past, members of both parties voted for the budget, although several Democrats complained that neither the House nor the Senate version of the roughly $75 billion budget does enough to help all Floridians.

Most of their criticism was aimed at the decision by the Republican-controlled Legislature to refuse to draw down financial aid in order to expand Medicaid coverage, part of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. The House last year refused to consider expansion and the idea has gone nowhere this session.

“Some Floridians are being left out of the conversation,” said Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami.

Top Republicans rebuffed those criticisms, pointing out that the budget boosts spending in many health care programs, including additional money to help the disabled and a program that provides services to keep the elderly out of nursing homes.

“The idea that our budget is ignoring people who are of limited means, or people who have challenges, that is not a characterization I think is accurate,” said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and the Senate budget chief.

The House voted 100-16 in favor of a nearly $75.3 billion budget, while the Senate voted 37-2 for a spending plan that totals nearly $75 billion.

The vote sets the stage for a final round of negotiations over the next several weeks. State legislators have until early May to pass a final budget and send it to Gov. Rick Scott.

Florida legislators entered this session with a budget surplus of $1.2 billion even after setting aside money to cover Medicaid expenses and public school enrollment.

They are using part of the surplus on a tax cut package, including a nearly $400 million rollback of auto-registration fees that Scott signed into law earlier this week. Lawmakers may also enact other tax cuts, including a back-to-school sales tax holiday. The House on Thursday passed a wide-ranging tax-cut bill that includes four different tax holidays, among them a weeklong sales-tax break on gym memberships in September.

Despite having a surplus, however, both the House and Senate budgets do rely on a slight rise in local property values in order to help boost public school funding. Democrats called this a tax increase and cited it as an example of how Republicans aren’t helping ordinary residents.

“Clearly this budget misses the mark and it has abandoned Florida’s middle class,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach.

Both the House and Senate have agreed to hold the line on college and university tuition this year. That’s a nod to Scott’s opposition to tuition hikes over the past two years.

Neither of the rival budgets includes any across-the-board pay raises for state workers. The Senate budget includes extra money for judicial employees, while the House has extra money for state law-enforcement employees.

Negron defended not including a pay raise this year, citing “significant” increases that were given to state workers last year, including a $1,400 raise to anyone who earned $40,000 or less.

One item in the Senate budget drew significant opposition Thursday: an amendment to give $3 million toFlorida State University for a new stand-alone College of Engineering. Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, pushed the amendment in the Senate’s version of the budget, which also includes $10 million for construction of a new building. Currently Florida A&M University and FSU run a joint school.

Several legislators were fearful that this could lead to reduced funding and cuts to FAMU. They cited a decision in the ’60s to shutter FAMU’s law school and instead establish one at nearby FSU. The FAMU law school was restored more than a decade ago.

“I see the ghosts of the past,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who graduated from the law school before it closed.

Thrasher contended he would not move forward unless FAMU and FSU officials reach a deal on how to separate the schools. He said he made the move in light of declining enrollment to FAMU’s engineering program.

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