State Politics

Legislature reaches budget agreement on higher education construction, water projects and more as deadline looms

View of the new Florida Capitol from the old one in Tallahassee, Oct. 12, 2015.
View of the new Florida Capitol from the old one in Tallahassee, Oct. 12, 2015. wmichot@miamiherald.com

State lawmakers agreed Sunday to spend $700 million on higher education construction next year, including $15 million for two projects at Florida International University.

Other projects on the $713 million higher education build list include $22.5 million for the medical school at the University of South Florida in Tampa; $6.5 million for a student affairs building at Florida A&M University; $1.5 million for a black student union at Florida State; and $20 million for the first stage of a downtown Orlando campus of the University of Central Florida.

The UCF project and others were vetoed last year by Scott, which produced a torrent of criticism from senators.

Legislators also signed off on 171 separate water projects throughout the state that will cost $60 million. They include water improvements in Apollo Beach, Aventura, Bal Harbour, Brooksville, Clearwater, Dade City, Miami Beach and Plant City.

Scott last year also vetoed most water projects, including some of the same ones approved by lawmakers again Sunday.

Under the state Constitution, a final budget must be available to legislators for 72 hours before they can approve it. With the session scheduled to end Friday, that means the budget must be available by Tuesday.

Lawmakers also reached dozens of fine-print spending decisions in a variety of other areas.

The two legislators making the key budget decisions, Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon and Rep. Richard Corcoran of Land O’Lakes, rejected across-the-board pay increases for all state workers, but they did OK raises for select groups of employees, including $2,000 for forestry firefighters and $2,000 for certain groups of inspectors in the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

They also rejected Scott’s plan for a performance-based program of bonuses for state workers.

Scott’s veto of the firefighter pay raise last year set off a furor with Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. The governor has not said whether he would approve the raises this year.

In education, Florida’s 650 charter schools and 3,600 public schools will evenly split $150 million next year for construction and maintenance. The figure is about the same as what Scott requested and is $25 million more for each group of schools than lawmakers spent this year.

The Legislature also is giving Scott $1.8 million to competitively bid a contract for a new automated travel management system for all state agencies and the courts. Corcoran said the goal is for state employees’ travel records to be online for citizens to see, as a way to “clean up state government and make it more accountable for the people.”

With lawmakers holed up in the state Capitol, Scott was in Washington on Saturday for the annual Gridiron Club dinner hosted by the press corps in the nation’s capital, where he sat at the table of the McClatchy Company, parent company of the Miami Herald.

Lee said progress on budget talks slowed Saturday because of a “vendor fist fight” on a perennial big-dollar issue involving a contract for purchases of police radios.

The Senate rejected a House proposal to spend another $7 million to replace radios under an existing state contract with Melbourne-based Harris Corp. that’s due to expire in five years and is sure to be the subject of a fierce fight with Motorola and other firms.

Separate budget language has a provision that requires the state, in evaluating bid proposals, to consider “any respondent’s ability to leverage existing resources to the public’s best interest.”

The Department of Management Services must give the Legislature 90-day progress reports on the progress of seeking new bids.

“We’ve worked out some language that we think is as competitively neutral as possible,” Lee said. “But it took a good long while to get there.”

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Kristen M. Clark contributed.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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