April 28, 2014

State Senate, House move closer on Florida budget priorities

Lawmakers haggling over next year’s $75 billion budget on Sunday moved closer to significant deals on state worker’s salaries, a controversial plan to build another engineering school, and environmental projects.

Lawmakers haggling over next year’s $75 billion budget on Sunday moved closer to significant deals on state worker’s salaries, a controversial plan to build another engineering school, and environmental projects.

The House wants a 5 percent across-the-board increase for the state’s law enforcement employees, including sworn officers of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Highway Patrol, and special agents. It would cost about $11 million.

The Senate plan doesn’t include such a hike, but on Sunday House leaders added other employees for whom the Senate sought higher compensation, including those in the court system (at a cost of $8 million), assistant state attorneys and assistant public defenders ($10.9 million) and assistant conflict counsels ($457,000).

“Today, we picked up some Senate priorities,” said House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland. “Which we’re very comfortable with.”

The Senate has not committed, but at this stage in the annual budget wrangling, it is assumed that offers made publicly will be accepted, especially those that accommodate the other chamber’s position.

“That’s usually a good sign,” said Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association. “We’re really happy it’s in there and they are adding other categories to it. It’s a generous offer.”

Sen. John Thrasher, a Florida State University alum considered a candidate to become the school’s next president, proposed giving FSU $13 million to start its own engineering program. The House had nothing in its budget for the proposal, which would split up a program FSU has shared for 32 years with neighboring Florida A&M University, the state’s historically black college.

Now the Senate is offering $150,000 to study whether the shared college of engineering should be split into two, placed at just one of the Tallahassee schools or maintained as it is.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said the state Board of Governors would make the final decision, an effort to address House Speaker Will Weatherford’s concerns about the split.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, has been one of the most vocal opponents to the proposed split, fearing the FAMU program would suffer.

The study proposal “slowed the process down,” she said. “At least it’s not happening overnight.”

Another sticking point has been environmental projects. Negron had made funding for two projects in his district, Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee a top priority, but neither was in the House budget. Sunday, the House matched the Senate’s $82 million proposal.

“I appreciate the movement of the House toward our position,” said Negron on Sunday afternoon. “I still think there are some remaining issues we still need to work out, but we’ve come a long way.”

The House had proposed to spend $45 million to restore freshwater springs suffering from nitrate pollution. The Senate is offering $22.8 million. On Sunday, the House lowered its offer to $30 million. Meanwhile, the House nudged its offer on beach projects from $31.9 million to $35.5 million, closer to the Senate’s $47 million offer.

Some prominent pet projects also saw progress. SkyRise Miami, a 1,000-foot-tall observation tower/amusement ride in downtown Miami, was originally offered $10 million in the House’s budget. The lower chamber reduced that to $5 million last week. But the Senate offered only $2 million and only if developers could show that developers had locked down $400 million in private money. On Sunday, the House matched the Senate’s offer.

The Senate, meanwhile, agreed to match the House’s request for $7 million for Jacksonville University, the alma mater of House Speaker Will Weatherford. The Senate reduced its offer of $10 million for the University of West Florida’s office of economic development and engagement, which is near Senate President Don Gaetz’s district, to $5 million. The House, as of early Sunday evening, hadn’t offered anything for the project.

Much of the K-12 education budget was settled last week. But the two chambers continued to disagree over penalties for school districts that don’t meet constitutionally mandated limits on class size.

The Senate offered to provide $18.4 million to reimburse parents of special-needs children for educational expenses. The House had yet to respond.

Also unresolved: which education projects would receive dollars from the Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) fund.

“We’re working through PECO, both the mechanics of PECO and the details of how we are going to do it,” Negron said. “I think you’ll see those offers forthcoming as we move through the schedule.”

Herald/Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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