State Legislators Pass Rival $87 Billion Budgets
With less than a month to work out substantial differences, the Republican-controlled Florida House and Senate on Thursday passed dueling $87 billion budgets for the coming year.While the two chambers propose spending roughly the same, they are not spending the same in key areas, including on environmental programs, public schools and on state universities.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran insisted that the gaps between the two chambers were the result of legitimate disagreements over spending as opposed to just initial offers for looming budget negotiations.
"The House has consistently had a difference of opinion at this stage of the process with the Senate on what's best for the people of the state of Florida," Corcoran says. "And that will be our pre-eminent focus and we will get there."
The last few years have been bumpy as Florida Republicans have feuded over everything from Medicaid expansion allowed under the health care overhaul pushed by President Barack Obama to how much money should be set aside for business incentives favored by Gov. Rick Scott. Last year GOP leaders did not wrap up their work on a new budget until early June.
Normally a looming election season prompts legislators to resolve their differences as quickly as possible. But significant fault lines could complicate getting work done by March 9, which is when the session is scheduled to end.
One big sticking point that could derail budget negotiations: The House has made more than $8.33 billion for the state's public schools contingent on the passage of a separate sweeping education bill. The legislation creates a new voucher program for bullied students and would allow struggling elementary students to get reimbursed for using private tutors.
The House passed the bill Thursday along partisan lines after hours of debate during which Democrats decried the measure as another way of diverting money from the state's public schools. Florida already has some of the nation's largest voucher programs. Republicans said the bill would help bullying victims and children.
Senate President Joe Negron says that while he and other Republicans were likely to support many of the provisions included in the legislation, he would not agree to tie it to budget negotiations.
"I expect the majority of the Senate is on the side of parental choice," Negron says. "We would prefer to have those polices move through the traditional process and not be linked to the budget."
Both sides have agreed to zero tuition hikes for college and university students and they have both proposed raising per-student funding in public schools by at least $100 per student. But the House is opposed to a Senate plan to use a rise in local property values to help pay for the increase. House leaders say that proposal is a type of tax increase.
The two sides also differ on how much money should go to the state's 12 public universities, whether to set aside money for a program that lets the state buy undeveloped land for preservation, and how much should go to hospitals that treat Medicaid-eligible patients. Legislative leaders are also predicting they will pass a tax-cut package this year, but the amount and the types of tax breaks have not been decided yet.
The House approved its budget by 85-27 vote, while the Senate passed its budget on a 33-1 vote.
Some House Democrats said they were voting against the budget because it does not spend enough on affordable housing and mental health programs. They also criticized the budget because it does not include an across-the-board pay raise for state workers.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, exhorted his fellow Democrats to vote against the budget and said a yes vote would not spare them from Republican criticism on the campaign trail this year.
"If you vote yes or no, you are going to get attacked anyway," Smith said. "So vote your conscience. If you still have one."