State Politics

House debates budget measure compromise

TALLAHASSEE — Democrats criticized and Republicans defended a compromise $66.5 billion state budget bill in House debate Thursday.

Both chambers of the GOP-controlled Legislature will vote today on the spending plan that includes tax and fee increases, federal stimulus money and spending cuts for the budget year starting July 1. The final version emerged after more than two weeks of House-Senate negotiations.

Democrats argued that Republicans chose the wrong taxes and fees to increase, particularly fees related to driving, while skimping on education, health care and other vital needs and cutting pay for state workers who make more than $45,000 by 2 percent.

“This budget could have been funded differently,” said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West. “It could have been funded by closing corporate tax loopholes. Instead, the majority party chose to fund this budget on the backs of average Floridians.”

The budget would raise driver license, registration and other motor vehicle fees by about $800 million, court fees by $227 million and tobacco taxes by about $900 million. The plan also includes $5.3 billion in federal stimulus funds.

Rep. Rich Glorioso, a Plant City Republican who chairs the House Transportation & Economic Development Appropriations Committee, said the driving-related fee increases don’t look so bad when compared to other states. One of the biggest hikes would be for initial vehicle registration, which would go from $100 to $225.

“If you don’t like that, go to Georgia,” Glorioso said. “It’s $335. Folks, we’re low. Even with our increases we’re low.”

Rep. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Pre-kindergarten-12 Education Appropriations Committee, said a $28 per student increase in public school spending — less than 1 percent — is nearly miraculous given the state’s deteriorating economic condition.

“We are in a recession,” Flores said. “We don’t have money.”

The $6,873 per student appropriation, though, is $255 less than in 2007-08. It would have been even less if not for the stimulus law Democratic President Barack Obama sought and signed, Democrats reminded their GOP colleagues.

The Senate did not meet Thursday. Today’s vote on the budget, implementing and conforming bills and a measure that would permit the Seminole Indians to expand gambling at seven tribal casinos will close out a one-week extension of the regular 2009 legislative session.

Lawmakers cannot make any changes in the budget bill (SB 2600) — they just may vote it up or down. There’s little doubt it will pass although most, if not all, Democrats will vote against it in the House.

Senate Democrats have been more supportive throughout the budgetary process, and the Senate unanimously passed its version last month.