State Politics

$69.2 billion House budget plan trades increased school funding for Medicaid cuts

TALLAHASSEE — The House is advancing a $69.2 billion no-new-taxes budget that increases college tuition by 8 percent, cuts payments to hospitals and nursing homes and eliminates 4,700 more state jobs, many from the closing of six prisons.

The House Appropriations Committee passed the spending plan Wednesday on a party-line vote with Republicans voting yes and Democrats voting no, sending the budget to the full House for a vote next week. When the Senate releases its budget proposal, the two chambers will start the yearly search for common fiscal ground.

"We have a balanced budget that funds the state's priorities without increasing fees or taxes," said Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, the House budget chairman.

Lawmakers face a $1.4 billion budget shortfall and Gov. Rick Scott is insisting that the budget include $1 billion more for public schools. The House's $1.1 billion increase equates to a 2.3 percent increase or $141 more per pupil.

But spending more on schools in a recession requires cuts elsewhere. The House would cut payments by 7 percent to hospitals for inpatient care and by 2.5 percent to nursing homes. Adults age 21 and older who are on Medicaid (except pregnant women) would be restricted to 12 emergency room visits per year. But the House avoids the deep funding cuts to hospitals that Scott has recommended.

One budget issue generated controversy Wednesday: More than 100 Jefferson County residents turned out hoping to prevent the closure of a state prison that is the county's largest employer. They failed.

Rep. Leonard Bembry, D-Greenville, unsuccessfully tried to divert $10 million from private prison operations to save the prison in Jefferson. But Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, who oversees prison spending in the House, objected, and said the budgets of private prisons have been cut enough.

Glorioso earlier removed a prison in his county from the closing list: Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview, a women's prison that costs $8 million a year to run and was ranked the least efficient prison run by the Department of Corrections.

Democrats accused Republicans of pitting critical programs against each other.

The school funding increase is "admirable," said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "But I don't like the methodology of taking money from Medicaid to fund schools."

State funding for colleges and universities would remain virtually flat in the House budget, with the new money coming mostly from an 8 percent tuition increase.

Scott firmly opposes an 8 percent tuition increase at state colleges and universities, but because the tuition increase is not a line item, lawmakers say, Scott would have to veto the entire state budget to cancel it.

"He cannot veto just the tuition," Grimsley said.