State Politics

Budget talks near end in Florida Legislature as lawmakers wrestle with university projects, tax cuts

TALLAHASSEE -- Hundreds of millions of dollars in college and university construction projects remained up in the air in down-to-the-wire budget negotiations at Florida’s Capitol Monday, but Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, predicted that the budget would be finished by Tuesday in time for a scheduled Friday adjournment.

Political influence plays a role in hometown spending decisions and every state university has powerful political supporters. Gardiner’s hometown school is the University of Central Florida, and he told reporters that the Legislature can’t possibly fund the $450 million worth of total projects on a list approved in January by the Board of Governors. The biggest project on the board’s list is $58 million for UCF’s new downtown Orlando presence — which Gardiner and other Orlando-area lawmakers strongly support. The estimated three-year cost of funding the Orlando project is $164 million.

“We want to have some guiding principles in dealing with which projects are ready to do and which ones are still in the planning stage,” Gardiner said.

Gardiner singled out the UCF downtown project and $17 million to relocate University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine as part of a major downtown Tampa redevelopment project as priorities because they can generate economic activity.

“I’d like to see the state be a partner with them,” he said.

Even if the Legislature approves the USF project funding and Gov. Rick Scott doesn’t veto it, the Florida Board of Governors still must approve the relocation of the USF Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute to the downtown location, university system spokeswoman Brittany Davis said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

On Monday, the Legislature approved a small cut on Floridians’ cellphone bills and back-to-school shopping tax free for 10 days under a tax cut package. The package, which had been caught in the middle of a feud over spending between the House and Senate, now heads to Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott is expected sign the legislation even though the Republican-controlled Legislature did not embrace all the tax cuts the governor wanted.

“Giving Floridians back more of the money they earn in tax cuts is the best thing we can do to keep Florida’s economy growing,” said Scott in a written statement. Scott was at the Paris Air Show on a trade mission but was expected to return to the U.S. later on Monday.

Scott had asked legislators to cut taxes by nearly $700 million, but the House and Senate deadlocked this year over health care spending due to the looming loss of federal aid to many of the state’s largest hospitals. Florida is expected to get some of the federal money in the coming year, but as part of a budget deal legislative leaders agreed to pare back the tax cut package to slightly more than $400 million to help make up the difference.

The Senate passed the tax cut bill 34-2, while the House voted 91-2 for the measure.

Scott wanted to slash the tax charged on cellphones and cable television bills by an average of $43 a year, but the final measure is expected to save nearly $20 a year for consumers.

The tax cut bill also includes a back-to-school tax holiday that runs from Aug. 7 to Aug. 16 where the state will not collect sales taxes on clothes and shoes that cost $100 or less. The tax holiday also applies to school supplies and the first $750 of computers.

The governor wanted to permanently eliminate the sales tax collected on college textbooks, but instead legislators agreed to eliminate it for just one year.

Lawmakers are in the final days of a special session after the health care stalemate derailed their regular session that ended in May. State government will be partially shut down if a new budget isn’t in place by July 1. House and Senate leaders said they expect lawmakers to vote on a budget this Friday.

The Florida Constitution requires a 72-hour delay from the time the budget is completed until lawmakers can vote on it.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Richard Danielson and Associated Press reporter Gary Fineout contributed to this report.