News Column

Florida Lawmakers Agree on Separate Spending Bills

April 3, 2013

Aaron Deslatte

Charter school operators could strike it rich with $100 million in school construction dollars. Gov. Rick Scott gets half a loaf with pay-raises for teachers but none of the $160 million in business tax cuts he coveted.

And ruling Republicans are once again stuffing the state budget with goodies for back home -- dollars for ballet schools, libraries, rural courthouses and road projects.

With surplus cash for the first time in years, the Florida Legislature's budget-writing committees approved competing $74 billion-plus spending plans Wednesday that give pay raises to teachers and state employees, pump more than $300 million into charter school, college and university construction, and are loaded with projects benefiting lawmakers' districts.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said the budget was an opportunity to play catch-up following years of successive cuts through the Great Recession.

"The revenue picture in the state of Florida is brighter than it was two or three years ago," Negron said, adding, "We're not going to go on a spending spree."

Yet, in an hour-long flurry of votes, Negron's panel passed more than 50 amendments, adding spending on projects for powerful individual lawmakers, including: $400,000 for the University of Central Florida's Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government; $250,000 for Orange County's Public Library system; $1 million to restore "small county" courthouses; $100,000 for the Miami Science Museum and another $50,000 for Cuban pro bono legal assistance.

Senate President Don Gaetz's neck of the woods stretching from Destin to Panama City got a heaping helping of projects -- including $300,000 for the Gulf Coast State College STEM Center; $500,000 for Opportunity, Inc. Okaloosa Walton Homeless Continuum of Care; and another $200,000 for the Northwest Florida Ballet Academie in Fort Walton Beach.

The committee also added $123 million in spending for college and university construction projects, including some on the campuses of Seminole State College, Daytona State College, College of Central Florida and the University of South Florida -- St. Petersburg.

"This is like the old days," quipped Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who served in the chamber in the 1990s.

Hours later, the House's appropriations committee passed its own $74.4 billion spending plan, although Democrats voted against it amid objections that neither chamber was going along with a federally funded Medicaid expansion that would give health-coverage to another 1 million people.

"If the policy of the Legislature was to expand health coverage for working families, I believe somewhere in this budget we would see that," said House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation.

"We have an opportunity and I believe it's a missed opportunity to receive over $50 billion in federal funding from now until 2022."

Republicans retorted that Florida's growing economy would float all boats.

"The best way to get someone health-insurance is to get them a job," said Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City.

Another person who isn't thrilled with the budget thus far: the governor, whose business tax-cuts are nowhere to be found so far.

Scott had requested about $160 million in tax cuts, through a combination of exempting manufacturers from paying sales tax on equipment purchases and allowing a greater number of smaller companies to avoid paying corporate taxes.

Lawmakers haven't included either -- although the House did add $36 million in tax cuts largely by enacting another three-day sales tax holiday for August that would include computer purchases.

Senate leaders have said they're more interested in Negron's idea to cut about $225 million in motor vehicle fees that were hiked in 2009 to balance the budget -- and pay for it by eliminating a tax-break for big insurance companies.

Gaetz said Wednesday it was "too early to tell" if the governor would get his wishes.

"I love tax cuts, but I really like the tax cuts that put money into Floridians' pockets and I think that's what we're going to be looking for," Gaetz said.

Source: (c)2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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