State Politics

House budget includes $1B in fee increases

MANATEE — It may have taken awhile for the state House of Representatives to get started, but Friday it shifted into high gear to pass a $65.1 billion spending plan.

The measures passed on a 74-45 vote, and called for nearly $1 billion in fee increases for drivers’ licenses, vehicle registration and a host of other services.

The Florida Senate’s version passed Thursday, calling for spending of $549 million more. It included fewer fee hikes but called for a $1-a-pack tax increase for cigarettes and other revenue-raising provisions not in the House plan. Joint conference committees are slated to begin work resolving differences Monday.

“I wish I was in the majority party so I could change it,” said a disappointed state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, whose district includes a portion of Manatee County. “It’s not a good budget. There are areas of critical concern that are being cut.”

“What’s happening is it’s enormously full of increased fees and such that are really tax increases, but they don’t want to wear the label,” Rouson said. Republicans argued fees haven’t been increased for years, or decades, in some cases, and that the state should keep up with the growing cost of providing services. Raising fees is better than raising taxes, one Republican argued.

In other action, the House:

n Approved a proposal to loosen Florida’s class-size limits, with Republicans in favor and most Democrats opposed. In 2002, voters approved the class-size constitutional amendment, setting limits of 18 students per class for kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade and 25 in high school, beginning in the 2010-11 school year.

If voters approved the new amendment on the 2010 ballot, acceptable class size would be calculated on a “school average” basis rather than tightening next year to a “per classroom” basis under current law. Supporters said it would provide flexibility.

n Under both chambers’ plans, the Manatee school district would receive from $287.3 million to $288.1 million for its operating fund, which pays for salaries, benefits and utilities, said Jim Drake, assistant superintendent of finances.

Both chambers managed the infusion in operating funds by borrowing from capital revenues, which would impair the district’s ability to upgrade older buildings and keep abreast of maintenance needs, Drake said.

n On a 10-5 party line vote, a House committee fast-tracked a bill opposed by voter advocacy groups. The House Economic Development and Community Affairs committee approved the bill, despite objections from Democrats and voter advocacy groups, who argued that the changes would make voting more difficult for the elderly and the poor, according to The News Service of Florida.

The bill is similar to a measure approved Thursday by a Senate committee, though the House bill goes further in reviving the “resign to run” law that would require state lawmakers to give up their seats if they decide to pursue higher office, it said.

State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said he opposed it because he thought it premature and also because, he noted candidly, “It might affect me.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report, as did Herald reporter Sylvia Lim.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908.