Florida senate unanimously passes $74.3 billion state budget

 

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

The Senate unanimously approved a proposed $74.3 billion budget Wednesday that includes 3 percent pay raises for state employees, $70 million for Everglades restoration and $1.2 billion more in public school funding.

The spending plan is largely welcome news for Floridians and lawmakers, who for the first time in several years are not facing spending cuts to balance the state’s books.

“It’s a tribute to the bipartisanship that we’ve seen in the Senate during the budget process,” Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said.

But drama remains in the House, where Democrats have said they will oppose the state budget until they know more about plans to expand health care coverage for poor Floridians.

Republican House leaders said those details could come Thursday. The House is expected to vote on its $74.4 billion spending plan Friday.

Senate Republicans already have proposed two alternatives to Medicaid expansion, one that includes the federal money and another that does not.

“At least those in the Senate leadership have put forth a plan that contemplates taking federal dollars,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. “We feel comfortable that at least the Senate is going in that direction.”

For the first time in several years, Democrats in both chambers like their budgets.

As part of the spending plans, state employees would get across-the-board pay increases of 3 percent in the Senate, while the House would offer employees a $1,400 raise. Both chambers restore $300 million taken out of the state university system. And the House and Senate plans would provide at least $1 billion more in education spending.

In response to Gov. Rick Scott’s request for a $2,500 pay raise for every teacher, the Senate is including the total amount that would cost — $480 million — but stipulates that the money be tied to student performance. The House included more money — $676 million for the raises — but encourages districts spend half that money on teacher performance.

Another key priority for Scott, a $141 million tax exemption for manufacturers’ equipment purchases remains unaddressed in the Senate budget. The measure did pass a House committee on Wednesday.

On Medicaid expansion, more clarity should come Thursday, when House leaders release their plan.

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, declined to provide specifics about the House plan or say whether it would rely on the billions of federal dollars set aside for states that expand Medicaid or create other eligible plans for the uninsured.

House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, said the plan could influence whether House Democrats support or oppose the budget.

“If we had something on the table with the House, it would mean we would take a different stance,” Thurston said. “But so far, the Senate has two alternatives, and we have no plan. That’s the major difference.”

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