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Mar 20, 7:06 PM EDT

'Chasm' of more than $4 billion divides Florida Legislature



TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Florida's Republican-led Legislature has a budget "chasm" of more than $4 billion that is dividing the House and Senate with six weeks left to go in the annual session.

The two chambers on Friday released their initial spending plans for the coming year and the differences are stark.

The House is proposing a nearly $76.2 billion budget, while the Senate's budget is more than $80.4 billion. The rival budgets are just the starting point for what could be a lengthy, and contentious, round of negotiations between GOP leaders between now and early May when the session is scheduled to end.

The key reason for the gap represents a continued divide over health care spending - and whether Florida should join the ranks of other states that have accepted federal money as part of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

The Senate is proposing to draw down $2.8 billion to pay for health care coverage to 800,000 Floridians who are currently not eligible for the state's Medicaid program. The Senate also has crafted a proposal aimed at bringing in additional federal money for hospitals that treat the poor and uninsured.

Senate leaders made the move in part because extra money the state now receives from the federal government for hospitals is due to expire this summer. There is an anticipation that a new agreement can be worked out, but House Republicans opted for now to exclude any extra money for hospitals from their initial budget.

"Budgets are about priorities and the Florida Senate placed adequate health care funding as priority number one," Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican and the Senate budget chairman, said in a statement.

Senate Republicans have argued that Florida is refusing to take tax dollars that are coming out of the pockets of its own residents, but House Republicans have remained firm so far that they will not do anything that expands what they call an "ineffective" Medicaid system.

Rep. Richard Corcoran, the Pasco County Republican who is in charge of the House budget committee, acknowledged the two sides are far apart but predicted they would be able to bridge their differences.

"Right now the chasm between the House and Senate looks sizable, but I'm an optimist and I think we'll get it worked out," Corcoran said.

While there is a wide gap in health care, the two sides are closer to agreement in some other key areas. Both sides keep college and university tuition rates flat and they propose boosting spending on public schools although a bit less than what Gov. Rick Scott proposed. The House budget also includes a $45 million bonus pot for more than 4,500 teachers. Teachers who scored well on college entrance exams and also received high marks on their annual evaluations could be eligible for an extra $10,000.

Scott's other spending priority this year is tax cuts. He asked legislators to approve a tax cut package of nearly $700 million that includes a reduction in the taxes charged on cellphone and cable television bills.

There's no deal on tax cuts yet, but a look at the spending plans show that both sides left more than $2 billion out of their rival budgets. Most of that money will likely wind up in reserves, but it gives legislators leeway to pass substantial tax cuts.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli has already promised a tax cut of least $500 million. Lee said this week that while the Senate supports tax cuts it would be premature to agree to anything until the health care issues are resolved.

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