$74.4 billion House budget has money for education, state workers

With support from Democrats and Republicans, the House approved a $74.4 billion budget Friday that includes the first automatic pay raise in seven years for state employees, a more than $1 billion boost for K-12 education and $300 million in restored funding for state universities.

The budget passed 99-17, with a majority of Democrats joining Republicans. House and Senate leaders will begin merging their proposed spending plans next week.

“There was a question as to whether the budget would be bipartisan,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. “I think with 99 votes it does show that [Republicans] did work hard to try to make this budget one that was bipartisan, and we’re very proud of that.”

The budget includes a $1.2 billion increase in transportation funding and a $1,000 automatic pay increase for state workers, which, while $400 lower than an earlier House budget proposal, helped win over Democrats.

With 25 of 44 House Democrats joining Republicans, the budget vote Friday is a victory for Weatherford, who has promised he would be more inclusive of the minority party.

At the same time, the vote highlights divisions among House Democrats over how much the expansion of Medicaid should sway votes.

Democrats had planned to oppose the Republican budget, even though they supported many things in it, because of the lack of a healthcare plan. That changed, however, when Republicans released a stripped-down proposal Thursday that did not include any federal money.

“When you have the highest budget in six or seven years that means there’s money to go around to our core constituents,” Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, said. The Republican plan “gave me an opportunity to take away the caucus position.”

But the reversal also undermined arguments Democrats were making earlier in the week.

On Tuesday, Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, urged Democrats to vote against the budget, suggesting that Weatherford’s inclusion of Democrats was cosmetic. “They’ve been saying that they’re working with us,” he said. “And they have, just not all the way.”

On Friday, Gibbons voted for the budget.

Gibbons said he voted “yes” on the budget because, as the highest ranking Democrat on the House budget committee, he wants to stay in position to push for Medicaid expansion.

“I want to stay engaged, and I felt that by voting for it I can be more engaged than if I vote against it,” Gibbons said. “It’s the bigger picture.”

Members such as Rep. Mark Danish, D-Tampa, said he struggled with his party’s earlier stance.

“People in my district want someone who thinks more in terms of what they want back home and that’s what I need to consider,” Danish, whose district covers New Tampa, said on Tuesday. “It’s a very middle-of-the-road district.”

On Friday, after voting yes for the budget, he was all smiles.

“It’s a good budget,” he said. “There’s a lot of pluses. Transportation, education — in many areas, it’s good. I’m hoping because we said yes, we’ll have room in negotiations that are coming up.”

Herald/Times staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.