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Budget Deal Reached; Session To End On Time

House and Senate leaders announced a deal on the state budget during a late-night meeting Monday, pumping more than $120 million in last-minute projects into the spending plan and setting the Legislature on course to end its annual session Friday, as scheduled.

The final negotiating session between the budget chiefs for the two chambers --- House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon --- included agreements on tens of millions of dollars in education spending along with the additional projects.

The full House and Senate are expected to vote on the proposal Friday, after a required 72-hour review period.

Simply reaching a deal on the roughly $80 billion spending plan for the year beginning July 1 was a victory. Last year, a conflict over hospital funding led to the contentious implosion of the regular session and prompted a rare June meeting where lawmakers finally hammered out their differences.

But despite criticism last year of last-minute additions to the budget, Lee and Corcoran once again agreed to three lists of projects that spread another $123.1 million throughout the spending plan, with money going to everything from a construction project at a state university to an infusion of cash for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

Items on the so-called "sprinkle lists" are often projects that appeared in earlier versions of one of the chamber's budget plans, but dropped out during negotiations. The lists themselves, however, are not publicly vetted until one of the last meetings of the House-Senate conference committee that reconciles the competing proposals.

The Senate spent almost $71.8 million on its list, formally referred to as "supplemental funding initiatives." The House offered $30.3 million on its version, along with nearly $21 million more in a list of additional water projects.

For example, the Senate poured another $24.8 million into the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, has focused on people with disabilities as one of his priorities this legislative session. The chamber also used $11 million to fund a building at the University of North Florida, the only one of the 12 state universities that didn't receive construction money in a previous list of education facilities.

The House, meanwhile, used $7 million to replace radio equipment for state law enforcement agencies, something the Senate had strenuously opposed and that had been dropped from spending plans during a public meeting on Sunday.

"Our only concern was that it not go into a spreadsheet that included any indication that the Senate bought into that notion at the subcommittee level," Lee said, referring to negotiations that took place before he and Corcoran began discussions. " ... It needed to come late if it was going to happen."

At the same time, he left little doubt that the Senate was still skeptical about the need for the equipment from a third-party vendor.

"There was no request from the agencies for these radios," he said. "They don't want them, but they're going to get them anyway. We'll see if they take them."

Asked why the radios were important enough to the House to push them back into the plan at the last minute, Corcoran essentially said the House did so because it was the chamber's prerogative.

"We have the power of the purse," he said. "We're going to make the decisions and the executive branch has the power of vetoes."

The two men defended the budget process in general and the sprinkle lists specifically. Corcoran pointed to the decision to put money back into the budget for the project at the University of North Florida, which has been approved by the Florida Board of Governors.

"That's why we have a supplemental list, so that we can make sure that we can correct those mistakes, and we did," he said.

Lee also suggested that the spending plan could have been even worse.

"The things you see in this budget don't tell the whole story," he said. "There are a good number of things you don't see in this budget that, but for Chairman Corcoran and myself, would be in here, and they wouldn't be good government."

As for the education budget, Corcoran and Lee agreed to spend more than $40 million on the "Best and Brightest" bonus program, which awards up to $10,000 in extra money to teachers who scored in the top fifth of all students on their college-admissions tests and are rated highly effective. The House then folded another $4 million into the program through its sprinkle list.

The two sides also agreed to $36.9 million in funding for high-performing universities, and increased the amount of existing money that universities would kick into a performance funding formula to $275 million, the share favored by the House.

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