State Politics

Florida budget talks continue as issues narrow

TALLAHASSEE — College students who get state scholarships would be spared paying more for their education and Florida charter schools would not have to follow the same class size limits as public schools under agreements lawmakers made in budget talks Saturday.

The Legislature’s top budget negotiators began meeting to finish the last details of the spending plan for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1 and is expected to be more than $65billion. Other lawmakers settled most differences during the past week, but the hardest-to-resolve issues remained.

State law currently requires public schools to average between 18 and 25 students per class depending on grade level, but the budget leaders decided charter schools wouldn’t have to follow that requirement. In addition, they agreed not to cut the amount of Bright Futures scholarships, which paid all or part of 160,000 Florida college students’ tuition last year. Lawmakers had discussed saving the state $7 million by reducing the amount of the scholarships by 1 percent. They had already agreed that students will have to pay an 8 percent tuition increase.

In a series of meetings throughout the day, the Senate’s chief negotiator, JD Alexander, exchanged offers with House budget leaders David Rivera and Marcelo Llorente, both Miami Republicans, but a number issues remained unresolved Saturday afternoon.

“This is an interesting process, as everybody knows,” Gov. Charlie Crist said when he stopped at the Capitol to check on the talks early in the day. “You’re never really sure what ends up in and what ends up out until they finish and put it on the desk.”

Lawmakers, for example, were trying to restore money for environmental issues the governor has repeatedly pushed — Everglades restoration and the state’s land conservation program, Florida Forever. Going into the weekend’s conference, Florida Forever money had been stripped from the budget, but the issue reappeared Saturday. The Senate proposed spending $25 million each on Florida Forever and Everglades restoration.

Negotiations also brought up restoring money to public libraries. Earlier in the week, lawmakers cut more than $20 million in library money the Florida Library Association said would result in some library branches closing.

Still outstanding are agreements on sensitive issues like whether community colleges and universities should be able to use state money for travel to Cuba and on stem cell research. The biggest issue, however, is expanding gambling to raise money for the state.

Any issues Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and his house counterparts can’t settle by Sunday afternoon will be decided at the highest level by House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, and Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach.

A final vote on the budget is expected Friday, a week after the normal close of lawmakers’ 60-day session which was extended to finish the budget.