State Politics

Hospitals, higher ed, hometown spending divide lawmakers as budget battle intensifies

Visitors snap pictures outside Florida’s Capitol building in Tallahassee, Tuesday, January 16, the first day of the 2016 Florida legislative session.
Visitors snap pictures outside Florida’s Capitol building in Tallahassee, Tuesday, January 16, the first day of the 2016 Florida legislative session. TAMPA BAY TIMES

Hospitals, higher education and hometown spending are all focal points of disagreement after Senate and House panels approved rival state budgets Wednesday.

They can’t even agree on the bottom line.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho tells the Miami Herald editorial board about the district's concerns about Florida lawmakers' plans to force districts to share local capital revenue with charter schools.

The two sides’ spending plans are at least $2 billion apart, and their priorities differ, as they often do. They all must be resolved before lawmakers can end the 2017 session by May 5.

The House’s leaner $81.2 billion budget reflects the vision of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a supporter of charter schools who refers to public schools as “failure factories.”

The House would spend $200 million for “Schools of Hope,” a program to attract high-performing charter schools to Florida and encourage students to leave low-performing public schools.

The House also favors cuts to state colleges and universities, most of which have large cash reserves and have used school employees to raise money for their private foundations.

“This practice uses taxpayer dollars to create permanent wealth for colleges and universities,” said Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, chairman of a budget subcommittee for higher education, who said campus spending has been rising at a faster rate than for most other state programs.

Florida Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran both have grand plans to reform public education from pre-K through university level. They answer: Will those proposals be used as tools for negotiation between the chambers in

The House budget panel also passed a bill that prohibits the use of school employees for foundation fundraising work and ends the secrecy of foundation records except names of donors who want anonymity.

“The public has a right to know,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, the budget chairman in the House.

Florida State University `President John Thrasher, a former House speaker and senator, said schools need to do a better job explaining their past spending practices.

“What we did was hire people who helped raise money, and that was something that benefited the university,” Thrasher said. “If we’re wrong about that, we’ll adjust.”

Unlike the Senate, the House budget also wipes out Enterprise Florida, the $100 million centerpiece of Gov. Rick Scott’s job-creation agenda, and slashes the tourism ad budget by two-thirds to $75 million, two Corcoran priorities that Scott opposes.

“I’m optimistic,” Scott said after dishing up plates of paella at the annual Miami-Dade Days in the Capitol courtyard.

He would not say if he would veto a budget that abolished Enterprise Florida.

“I’ll go through it, like I do every year,” Scott said.

Most Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee voted for the budget, even after criticizing Republican priorities.

But Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, the minority leader, voted no, citing proposed cuts to Jackson Memorial, Tampa General and other hospitals that she said would be most harmful to people without insurance.

Jackson Memorial would lose $39.8 million in the House budget and Tampa General would lose $21.4 million, according to the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida.

Cruz also criticized House Republicans for cuts to Bright Futures college scholarships and for promoting charter schools at the expense of public schools.

“The message is that public schools don’t matter,” Cruz said.

The yearly fight over pork-barrel spending also intensified as House leaders chided the Senate for packing its budget with more than $700 million in local projects, compared to the House’s estimated $140 million.

The Senate’s $83.2 billion budget contains nearly 700 separate projects, nearly three times as many as the House.

Yet another source of friction involves the more than 112,000 people who work for state government, who have had just a single pay raise in the past 10 years.

The Senate wants to give them all a raise next year, but the House favors raises only for correctional officers.

“This budget contains nearly $220 million in long overdue pay raises for our state employees,” said Senate budget chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

The Senate and House remain at odds over how to pay for a per-pupil school funding increase. The Senate relies on $558 million in new revenue from local property taxes due to rising property values, something the House calls a “back door property tax increase” that it will not consider.

Democrats protested Republican plans to slash more than $1.3 million and 21 positions from the budget of State Attorney Aramis Ayala in Orlando over her refusal to seek the death penalty in murder cases, including for the accused killer of a police officer.

Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, said that would result in unintended cuts to other programs, such as fighting human trafficking.

“It will dramatically reduce our ability to prosecute these kinds of cases,” Bracy said.

The two budgets are expected to pass the full House and Senate next Wednesday and Thursday, setting the stage for conference committee negotiations.

Passing a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is the only bill the Legislature is required to enact each year.

Herald/Times staff writers Michael Auslen and Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.

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