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Fla. poised to approve an $82.3 billion budget

Posted at 4:28 AM, Mar 11, 2016
and last updated 2019-01-18 16:53:18-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Putting behind a year's worth of rancor, the Florida Legislature on Friday will approve a more than $82.3 billion budget that includes a slight boost in money for schools but also rejects many of Gov. Rick Scott's main priorities.

Just a few months ago the Republican-controlled Legislature was rushing to pass a budget to avoid a state government shutdown. This time the House and Senate put together a spending plan for this year that increases the state budget by roughly 5 percent without the arguing and finger-pointing that had consumed most of 2015. The vote guarantees that legislators end their session on time.

But along the way legislators forged a budget that ignored much of what the GOP governor wanted. They shot down his bid for a $250 million fund to lure new companies to the state. Scott's tax cut package, a centerpiece of his 2014 re-election bid, was scaled back significantly. Instead of using a budget surplus to give tax cuts largely to businesses, legislative leaders instead steered money to a small trim in local property taxes.

Both Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli insisted that their approach was a reaction to recent news that showed that Florida's economic recovery may be faltering and that tax collections aren't growing as robustly as once forecast.

"There's a reality to how much money you have available and the resources you have and we had to recognize that," Crisafulli said this week.

There are other places that legislators also bucked Scott. They agreed to borrow money in order to set aside more than $700 million in school construction projects. Florida in the past would routinely borrow money for building projects, but they had stopped due to continued opposition from Scott.

Crisafulli defended the practice, saying that it makes sense to use bond proceeds for construction with interest rates so low. Still the move could risk a veto from Scott, who last year slashed nearly $500 million from the budget before signing it into law.

Democrats have usually been sharply critical of the annual budget. But this year they said they would vote for the budget to "send a message" to Scott. This means that the Republican-controlled Legislature should have enough votes to override Scott in case he vetoes the budget or spending items within it. It takes a two-thirds vote to override a veto.

"We have a governor who refuses to govern and that has enabled us to cross party lines," said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat.

Some legislators, however, said there were shortcomings in the budget. They complained it doesn't include an across-the-board pay raise for state workers or boost spending enough in Florida's troubled prisons system. A push by Florida's prison chief to hire enough correctional officers to switch from a 12-hour shift to an 8-hour shift was not approved by budget negotiators.

Rep. Charles Van Zant, a North Florida Republican who is leaving this office due to term limits, harshly criticized GOP leaders for refusing to set aside more money for state workers and prison employees.

"We have the money, but we are cheating our employees," said Van Zant.

Despite saying they didn't have money for pay raises, legislator still spread throughout the budget tens of millions for hometown projects. Some of the same projects were vetoed by Scott last year, leading to rampant speculation that legislative leaders may have already agreed to override Scott. Crisafulli and Gardiner have continued to insist they don't have any agreement on overrides.

"There's going to be things in there the governor doesn't like, there's going to be things in there the governor likes," said Crisafulli.

This story has been corrected to reflect the correct amount of the new state budget.

Budget Highlights

EDUCATION: The new budget increases day-to-day public school spending by $458 million, which translates into a 1 percent increase. The per pupil spending amount would be $7,178.49, which is less than Gov. Rick Scott recommended. Legislators also agreed to spend more than $700 million on university, college and school construction projects.

PROPERTY TAXES: The governor proposed boosting money for public schools but wanted to rely on additional local property taxes. Schools in Florida are paid through a combination of state and local money. Legislators rejected that approach this year and instead proposed a slight trim in local property taxes charged by school districts.

PAY RAISES: There are no across-the-board pay raises for state workers. But legislators did agree to pay raises for select state employees, including forest firefighters and crime lab analysts.

TUITION: Tuition rates for college and university students will stay the same in the new state budget.

PRISONS: Florida's prison system would get more than $12 million to hire more correctional officers, but legislators rejected a request from the Department of Corrections for more than 700 new positions. The department wanted the positions to switch from 12-hour shifts to eight-hour shifts in Florida's prisons. Legislators contend that the department already has a lot of vacant jobs and has enough money to switch shifts in some prisons.

ENVIRONMENT: Legislators agreed to spend $132 million for Everglades restoration and nearly $57 million on water bodies north of the Everglades. They also set aside $32.6 million for beach restoration and $50 million to help restore and improve water quality at the state's freshwater springs. The budget also includes $8 million for citrus greening research and $500,000 to help reduce conflicts between bears and humans by helping purchase bear-resistant garbage containers.

HEALTH INSURANCE: Legislators rejected a proposal from Scott that the governor and other top state officials pay the same for health insurance as rank-and-file state workers. Scott currently pays less than $400 a year for family coverage.

TAXES: State legislators agreed on a tax cut package that is substantially scaled back from what Scott and House Republicans initially proposed. Legislators are expected on Friday to approve a tax cut bill that would permanently eliminate sales taxes for the purchase of manufacturing equipment. The tax cut package also includes a three-day back-to-school sales tax holiday.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Scott wanted $250 million for a "Florida enterprise fund" that would be used to lure new businesses to the state. Legislators ultimately rejected this plan and set aside zero for the fund. Scott has warned this could cost the state new jobs.