Florida Legislature approves $77 billion budget

Florida lawmakers adjourned their 2014 election-year session late Friday, approving in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, legalizing a strain of marijuana for limited medical use and expanding corporate tax credits that allow poor children to go to private schools.

They also overhauled child protection laws, allowed a noncitizen to practice law, banned sales of e-cigarettes to minors and set up a pecking order for sales tax rebates for sports stadiums, including a possible major league soccer facility in Miami.

In a session aimed at shoring up Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election prospects, Republicans stayed on course. They rolled back car tag fees, pumped more money into public education and used the immigrant tuition issue to appeal to disaffected Hispanics whose votes are vital to Scott’s political future.

As the night dragged on and lawmakers sipped from white foam cups, they adopted a $77.1 billion budget — the largest in state history. It’s fortified by more than $1.2 billion in extra sales tax revenue from a surging economy that will increase school spending by 2.6 percent next year.

“This has been a great year for public schools,” said Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

The budget spends $18.9 billion on public schools, the most ever and an increase of $176 per student, to $6,937. That’s still below the record 2008 level of $7,126 per pupil.

The surge in new tax revenue also left room for $3 billion in unspent reserves and $500 million in tax and fee cuts, including consumer-friendly sales tax holidays for hurricane supplies, back-to-school items and clean-energy appliances. But they couldn’t find any money to give state workers a pay increase other than state law enforcement officers, who will get 5 percent raises.

The House passed the budget by a vote of 102-15, and the Senate followed with a 40-0 vote. Sine Die came at 10:40 p.m.

Gov. Scott joined legislators in the Capitol Rotunda for a traditional end-of-session celebration.

“Today is a great victory for Florida families,” Scott said. “We have had four great years.”

The session of 2014 might be remembered as the year that the conservative Legislature underwent a major shift in its philosophy on immigration and drug use. Republican legislative leaders also worked to avoid controversy in the election year.

That’s why, for the second year in a row, the session ended with no changes to a retirement system for hundreds of thousands of public employees. The biggest shift would have steered new entrants into 401(k)-style investment plans and given workers another justification to oppose Scott’s re-election.

Some Republican lawmakers are ambivalent about Scott, but they will be on the ballot together, and the governor’s race is unpredictable. Scott’s likely challenger is Democrat Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor.

In the session’s final two days, Scott repeatedly criticized Crist by name.

After the House passed the immigrant tuition bill Friday, a triumphant Scott appeared in front of TV cameras and blasted Crist, who had opposed in-state tuition for immigrants but now supports it.

“We’re righting the wrongs of Charlie Crist,” said Scott, who himself earlier opposed in-state tuition.

Asked to explain his about-face, Scott said: “There’s a difference between talk versus action. We’ve taken action.”

The budget headed to Scott’s desk has hundreds of millions of dollars in projects in lawmakers’ districts. Crist challenged Scott to veto it and call lawmakers back in a special session and demand that it be given to public schools.

Scott can’t veto a lot of line-item spending without making his fellow Republicans look like spendthrifts. That would create dissension in a year when Scott needs their help on the campaign trail — and besides, lawmakers were deferential to Scott this session.

“We’ve been very good to the governor this year,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. “If you look at the priorities he’s had, we’ve delivered on all of them.”

If the 2014 session had a pivotal moment, it occurred two weeks ago when the immigrant tuition bill was losing momentum. Even though it had easily passed the House, Senate Republican leaders were blocking a vote.

But two former Republican governors, Bob Martinez and Jeb Bush, issued a joint statement with Scott on April 18 to urge passage of the bill. The statement was an acknowledgment that Scott lacked the political muscle to get the bill passed by himself, but it worked.

“The governor called and asked if I would consider adding my voice,” said Martinez, the state’s first Hispanic governor from 1987 to 1991, and a former mayor of Tampa who sagely predicted two weeks ago: “It’s never over until it’s over.”

Bush, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, served two terms from 1999-2007 and remains a revered figure among Florida Republicans. On Friday, he said: “Florida succeeded in doing what the federal government has failed to do: take real steps to address our nation’s serious immigration challenges.”

The House reapproved the immigrant tuition bill 84-32 on Friday after killing an amendment by Rep. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando that would let undocumented immigrants receive Florida driver’s licenses — an idea Bush championed unsuccessfully a decade ago.

Rep. Jeannette Núñez, R-Miami, sponsor of the immigrant tuition bill, HB 851, warned that major changes on the last day would need Senate review and could jeopardize chances of passage. Núñez and a bipartisan House coalition defeated the amendment.

For Democrats, the session was largely an exercise in frustration as the GOP majority ignored their ideas, such as raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and allowing people to register to vote online.

“There’s a lot of unfinished business,” said Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, the House Democratic leader. “We’re going to get out of here and pat ourselves on the back when there’s really a lot more to be done.”

Democrats said the Republicans’ signature failure was their refusal for the second consecutive year to consider an expansion of Medicaid in a state that ranks second to Texas in the number of people with no health insurance.

As the last day of lawmaking got underway, a group of clergy, single moms and others issued a call for action, but the issue was dead before the session began.

“The Legislature turned its back on those who work hard but cannot afford proper healthcare,” said the Rev. Brant Copeland, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee. “We’re not going to forget. We think the Legislature can do better.”

Herald/Times staff writers Kathleen McGrory and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.

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