TALLAHASSEE State lawmakers made significant headway on the budget Saturday, reaching consensus on economic incentives and spending on transportation, prisons and law enforcement.
But they had yet to find a compromise in the two most controversial parts of the spending plan: education and health and human services.
“We just opted not to go through that first,” House Budget Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, said. “We’ll get to it, hopefully, tomorrow.”
The chambers must align their budgets by Tuesday to bring the Legislative session to a timely close. The Senate had proposed a $71 billion budget. The House version was $69 billion.
Negotiators return today to continue talks.
On Saturday, lawmakers agreed on an $86 million package of economic incentives aimed at bringing companies to Florida.
After initially disagreeing on how much power Gov. Rick Scott should have over the pot of incentive money, the Senate and House came together on an agreement to give the governor $61 million to use as he sees fit. An additional $25 million in incentives grants, tax cuts and the like would have to be approved by legislators.
Scott originally asked for a package of about $230 million in incentives.
They also agreed to find savings in the Department of Corrections, opting to close prisons, eliminate vacant positions and reduce contracts with private contractors.
Pleas from workers pushed
lawmakers to save Jefferson County Correctional Institute from closure, but legislators opted to push ahead with a plan to close the Hillsborough Corrections Institute.
Of the unresolved issues, preK-12 education spending will likely be the easiest to sort out. Both chambers agreed to add more than $1 billion to schools, but there were still some question marks, such as how much to penalize school districts that do not meet class size mandates.
Higher education will be the bigger problem. Still left unaddressed is how to spread the $300 million in proposed budget cuts among the state’s 11 universities.
In the House’s original spending plan, a historical formula was used to disperse the cuts evenly among all the universities.
But Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who had been frustrated by University ofSouth Florida officials in his effort to turn its Lakeland campus into a 12th university, came up with a new method that aimed the largest cuts at USF. Alexander said the cuts were commensurate in size to a school’s reserves, but USF officials were quick to point out they didn’t have the largest reserves.
Because of the USF situation, which also remains unresolved, many Tampa Bay lawmakers said the distribution of the cuts remains the most vexing issue left outstanding.
“That’s what I’m concerned about right now,” Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said Saturday. “We need the cuts to be proportionate.”
As of Saturday, Alexander said the issue of cuts had yet to be discussed. Whatever method is chosen, cuts of any size aren’t welcomed by university officials, who have seen their funding slashed over the last five years.
Reaching a deal on Medicaid could be equally as challenging. The Senate and House have proposed different rate cuts.
In addition, the Senate has proposed spending millions more on adult mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment.
“We have a fair amount of work to do,” Alexander said. “But we’re making good progress.”