Florida set to approve nearly $80 billion budget
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Following a drawn out, contentious battle that saw the state flirt with a partial government shutdown, the Florida Legislature is poised on Friday to approve a nearly $80 billion budget.
The final budget is full of winners and losers.
Legislators bumped up money for schools and set aside more than $400 million for tax cuts. Republican leaders were able to secure millions for hometown projects, including money to create downtown campuses for universities in both Tampa and Orlando. They also agreed to boost funding for the state's scandal-ridden prisons system and tripled money available for therapy, tutoring and other services provided to children with disabilities.
"We're excited about the product that we put together," said Senate President Andy Gardiner. "We think it's something we can be proud of."
But the budget has no pay raises for state employees and critics contended that the GOP-controlled Legislature ignored the wishes of voters who last fall approved an amendment called for setting aside money for land conservation. Democrats pointed out the boost in school funding came largely because of an expected surge in home values that will trigger a rise in property taxes.
Some legislators also remained opposed to the spending plan because the House rejected a plan to extend health care coverage to as many as 500,000 Floridians.
"The budget doesn't reflect Floridians priorities as much as it reflects short sighted and narrow-minded thinking," said Rep. Mark Pafford, a Lake Worth Democrat.
The final vote is coming a few days before the end of the state's fiscal year. State agencies had already warned that they would have shut down parts of state government if a budget was not in place by July 1.
Legislators were unable to reach a deal during the regular session because the House and Senate were odds over health care. House Republicans adjourned early because Senate leaders were insisting on a proposal to expand health care coverage by tapping into federal money tied to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
The standoff led to a June special session where the Florida House eventually voted down the Senate health care coverage proposal. Budget negotiators then worked largely behind closed doors to reach an agreement that included pouring in $300 million on various projects at the last minute.
Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican and Senate budget chief, acknowledged the final budget was "not going to be perfect" but he contended leaders tried to accommodate the priorities of many legislators.
House members debated the budget a day before the final vote and one of the biggest flashpoints was over whether the Legislature followed Amendment 1. Supporters of the amendment say lawmakers ignored it because they only designated $55 million to purchase land, including $17 million for the state's Florida Forever program.
But Republican leaders argued their spending decisions, including using Amendment 1 money on salaries for employees who work on environmental-related programs is allowed.
Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican, said the budget was "consistent with the letter and spirit" of the amendment.
After legislators approve the budget it will be sent to Gov. Rick Scott who witnessed his fellow Republicans scaling back, or even ignoring many of his top priorities. Scott will have just a few days to decide how much he wants to use his line-item veto power on individual spending items.
But House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said legislators still tried to meet many of Scott's goals.
"I think there's a lot in the budget for everybody and I think the governor will find favor to it," said the Merritt Island Republican.
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