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Feb 11, 7:06 PM EST

Florida Legislature divided over budget and tax cuts



TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Separated by nearly $1 billion in spending and differences over everything from tax cuts to health care spending, the Florida Legislature has less than a month left in its regular session to reach a deal on a new state budget.

Although Republican legislators stress they won't have a repeat of infighting that marred their negotiations last year, they conceded that it will require some major compromises to end the session by March 11. The final decision on the state budget could wind up affecting everything from how much money teachers get in the coming year to whether the state has a back-to-school sales tax holiday this summer.

"Now is the time where the pressure points, the decision points, are here," said Senate President Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican. "There are going to be some tough decisions. There will be stuff that won't make it."

Last year GOP legislators split over Medicaid expansion and wound up passing a budget just days before a potential state government shutdown.

Both the House and Senate on Thursday passed their rival spending plans. The Senate budget totals nearly $81 billion, while the House version is just under $80 billion. And though portions of both budgets are aligned, fault lines exist on school spending, economic development and tax cuts. Both sides also have refused to endorse key parts of Gov. Rick Scott's budget recommendations, which could complicate a final resolution.

The House has pared its budget with a tax cut package that includes a 10-day back-to-school tax holiday and single-day tax holidays for the purchases of guns, computers and cellphones. But the biggest part of the package is a cut in the tax charged on rent paid by businesses. The package totals about $350 million in the coming year, but the price tag grows to nearly $1 billion over the next two-and-a-half years.

Senate Republicans, however, remain wary of deep tax cuts, citing a volatile stock market and a softening national economy that could affect the state's tourism industry.

Sen. Tom Lee, the Senate budget chairman, said it would be "fiscally irresponsible" to pass a $1 billion tax cut package as Scott has proposed. He said to do so could force legislators to enact tax hikes in two to three years. Senate leaders are also floating an idea that instead of passing business-targeted tax cuts they put more state money into public schools. That would allow local school districts to slightly trim property taxes they charge.

Another key difference: The Senate has set aside $250 million for a fund that Scott wants to use to lure new businesses to the state. The House has refused so far to agree to any amount. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said he wants an agreement first on how the money will be parceled out.

Scott, talking to reporters Thursday, contended that he would wind up getting his priorities passed.

"I'm very comfortable we are going to have a good end," Scott said.

The Senate and House votes came after two days of questioning, amendments and harsh debate. Though the Senate passed its budget by a 40-0 vote, the House vote was 85-29, with many Democrats voting against the bill.

Democrats were sharply critical of a provision included in the House budget that would prohibit health care providers from using state money to contract with Planned Parenthood to provide services. They also faulted the budget for failing to eliminate waiting lists for state services and for failing to include a pay raise for state workers.

"It doesn't go far enough to actually have an impact on working and middle class families," said Rep. Edwin Narain, a Tampa Democrat.

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