State Politics

House OKs $67.2B budget bill

TALLAHASSEE — Democrats decried spending cuts for education, health care and other services while majority Republicans boasted they had balanced the House’s version of Florida’s budget without increasing taxes as the chamber passed the measure Thursday.

The $67.2 billion budget bill (HB 5001) would spend about $2 billion less than the Senate’s version (SB 2700). With the 60-day legislative session half over, the chambers will have a month to resolve their differences.

The House’s 74-44 party line roll call came after four hours of partisan debate. That contrasted with the Senate’s unanimous vote a day earlier on its $69.5 billion plan for the budget year beginning July 1.

Both sides noted the House acted on April Fool’s day.

“Somebody’s got to be joking,” said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, as he argued against benefit reductions for retired state and local public employees including teachers and spending cuts he said would cost 8,000 road building jobs.

House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands of Weston called it “a fiscally mean budget.”

“It is not foolish to responsibly balance Florida’s budget within existing revenues and not raise taxes,” responded Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach.

The biggest differences between the chambers are over $880 million in additional federal Medicaid stimulus and $435 million from the Seminole Indians in exchange for expanded gambling at tribal casinos. Both are in the Senate bill but not the House’s version.

House Republicans say those dollars cannot be counted on because Congress has yet to pass a bill giving extra Medicaid money to the states and an agreement hasn’t yet been reached with the Seminoles.

The House also passed a series of implementing and conforming bills. Democrats won a fleeting victory when they attracted enough Republicans to defeat the conforming bill cutting retiree benefits (HB 5701) 59-57, but it then was reconsidered and passed 63-56.

Democrats opposed an education conforming bill (HB 5l01) because it would require school districts to publish information showing how their budgets would be negatively effected if voters fail to adopt a state constitutional amendment loosening class size limits.

Democrats also criticized a $52 reduction in spending for each student in public schools while Republicans argued it would amount to less than 1 percent — small compared to other cuts.

The Senate bill would increase spending by $15.41 per student to $6,881.18. That figure, though, assumes all 67 school districts will levy a local option property taxes but 25 have not done so.

If they don’t, the Senate figure also would drop below this year’s funding level.

Both chambers would increase tuition by 8 percent at state and community colleges and public universities.

The House bill would limit payments for the highest achieving students to $110 per credit hour compared to $126 in the Senate plan.

For the second tier the House set an $83 limit and the Senate $95. Current tuition and fees for undergraduate students are about $145 per credit hour.

The Senate also would increase qualifying standards and prohibit students who let their grades slip from getting back into the program.

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