Florida lawmakers near deal on $75 billion budget


Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

State lawmakers edged closer Saturday to a final deal on Florida’s proposed $75 billion budget, which includes an all-time high of $11 billion for K-12 education and $500 million in tax and fee cuts.

Unlike prior years when lawmakers faced deficits, budget talks this year have progressed with little drama or discord, at least publicly. No meetings were held Saturday as Senate and House budget leaders and staff haggled over what are considered minor differences.

Election-year politics and a surplus of about $1.2 billion have contributed to harmony between the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

“We’ve made a lot of progress already,” said Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford on Friday night. “The big-box issues are closing out a pretty rapid pace.”

Lawmakers should have plenty of time to hash out the remainder of the budget by Tuesday, when it is due on the desks of the state’s 160 lawmakers. That gives them the required 72-hour “cooling off period” to read and consider the budget before they are required by law to pass it Friday.

Many of the biggest differences between the two chambers have been over the $20.6 billion public education budget.

Negotiations stalled earlier in the week after House Education Appropriations Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, refused a conditional offer from his counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Bill Gavalno, R-Bradenton.

But by Saturday, many details of the K-12 budget were close to being finalized, including a proposed 2.7 percent increase in per-pupil spending. The boost would drive funding to about $6,963 per student, still short of the record high $7,126 in 2007-08.

There was also consensus on technology funding. The House had wanted to invest about $70 million in infrastructure improvements, some of which would have been funneled through the state-run Florida Information Resource Network. But the Senate prevailed with its plan to spend $40 million and give school districts more flexibility.

Some big-ticket education items, however, were left unresolved.

The chambers had yet to agree on funding for proposed “personal learning scholarship accounts” that would reimburse the parents of special-needs students for educational expenses. The Senate has said the measure will cost $18.4 million. The House believes the price tag is $8.8 million, but did not include funding in its budget proposal.

“Every budget year is unique,” said Galvano on Saturday. “This year it just seemed that education had the most complicated issues.”

The House and the Senate still must agree on how to dole out $200 million in performance funding to 11 state universities.

A second disagreement on higher education spending is the proposed split of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, which is backed by Sen. John Thrasher. Thrasher, an FSU alum rumored to be eyeing the university’s vacant presidency, said he is not giving up his fight for $3 million in new operating funds and $10 million in capital outlay funds for a duplicate engineering program at his alma mater, despite a rumored cool reception from House leadership.

So far, the House has refused to even negotiate on the issue, offering no additional operating funding for FSU to begin planning for a split of the 32-year-old joint engineering school.

Meanwhile, on healthcare, with the expansion of Medicaid a non-issue for the second straight year, there were few major conflicts. The two chambers disagree on how much new funding to invest in reducing the waiting list of Florida residents who have applied to receive Medicaid coverage for assisted-living facilities or home healthcare. The House wants $19.9 million; the Senate offered $15.4 million.

Other differences in the budget involve pet projects.

The Senate wants $10 million for University of West Florida’s Office of Economic Development and Engagement, money that the Senate President Don Gaetz’s office says is linked to the Oil Spill Recovery Act. Gaetz’s district is a short drive away from UWF. The House budget, however, does not have any money for that program.

The House, meanwhile, has $7 million earmarked for a first-time ever investment in Jacksonville University, Weatherford’s alma mater. The Senate is only offering $1 million.

And there’s still quite a difference on SkyRise Miami, a proposed 1,000-foot observation tower/amusement park ride in downtown Miami. The House has reduced by half its initial offer to spend $10 million on the project. The Senate, which offered nothing originally, upped its offer to $2 million, but only if the project developers can show they have locked down $400 million in private funding.

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