State Politics

Florida House, Senate budgets $600 million apart

TALLAHASSEE — Proposed budgets released by both Florida legislative chambers for the next fiscal year are $600 million apart, with the Senate’s on the high side partly because it includes Seminole Indian gaming money not in the House plan.

Gov. Charlie Crist, meanwhile, Friday stepped up efforts to persuade both Republican-controlled chambers to approve a compact he originally made with the tribe to expand gambling at its seven Florida casinos before the state Supreme Court ruled it needs legislative approval. Both chambers have since drafted separate plans, with Crist’s version somewhere in the middle.

The Senate’s proposed $65.6 billion spending plan for the budget year beginning July 1 is about $100 million more than the state’s current budget. The House plan weighs is $65 billion, or half a billion less than now being spent.

Both proposals were distributed to lawmakers late Thursday. Appropriations committees will consider them next week. Floor votes are expected the following week.

The Senate’s budget bill (SB 7072) includes $538 million from the Seminole compact. That includes $288 million carried over from the current budget year. The tribe has put that much aside awaiting the Legislature’s approval of Crist’s compact. The Senate is considering a more expansive proposal that could bring in nearly $400 million a year.

The House has no compact money in its plan, not yet formally filed as a bill, but Friday its Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review approved a scaled-down proposal expected to bring in about $100 million a year.

The Senate’s compact would let the Seminoles have full-blown casinos including roulette, blackjack and craps. It also would let pari-mutuel facilities — dog and horse tracks and jai-alai frontons — put in more advanced slot machines.

The House version would permit the Seminoles to have only the same type of slots currently allowed at South Florida pari-mutuels.

Crist’s proposal would allow the Seminoles to have Las Vegas style-slots and card games including blackjack. He said it would provide the state with $2.6 billion over 25 years, and most of that would go to education.

Officials from the Florida Education Association, which is the statewide teachers union, and organizations representing school boards and superintendents joined Crist and Seminole leaders at a news conference to tout the governor’s plan.

Crist said he wouldn’t settle for the House version. The House’s GOP leaders, though, are reluctant to expand gambling and could tell the governor and Senate it’s their plan or nothing.

“That would be ill-advised I think and not very polite,” Crist said. “We try to be polite and work with each other.”

Another key budget difference is higher education. The House has appropriated $4.1 billion for community colleges and universities. That’s $459 million less than the Senate, which would leave their budgets virtually unchanged from the current year.

Both chambers include at least $2.5 billion in federal stimulus dollars and they’re fairly close on public schools — the Senate leaving spending at the current rate of $6,680 per student and the House increasing it by $30.

Neither, though, has any money for the Florida Forever environmental land-buying program, which usually gets $300 million a year.

At a special session in January, lawmakers tried to suspend Florida Forever for the rest of the current budget year, but Crist vetoed that from a deficit-reduction bill. The governor, though, would be powerless to restore money that’s never been appropriated.

Both chambers plan to reduce state jobs again. In the past, nearly all were unfilled positions, but Senate Ways and Means Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, acknowledged as many as 800 state employees might be laid off.

Both budget plans would cut nursing home spending — the Senate by $81 million and the House by $69 million. Nursing homes and advocates for the elderly say $787 million in health care stimulus money could have prevented those cuts, but it’s being diverted to other purposes.

“Our state is in a fiscal crisis that is soon to turn into a moral crisis,” said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston.