Budget Set At $82.3 Billion Amid Intrigue, Criticism
Lawmakers formally unveiled an $82.3 billion budget plan on Tuesday, paving the way for a Friday end to the legislative session and setting up a potential fight with Gov. Rick Scott after curtailing or scuttling his top priorities.
Supporters and opponents of decisions lawmakers made also began to sound off on the spending proposal, the product of a deal struck late Monday between the House and Senate budget chiefs.
The release Tuesday of the full text of the plan, which covers the fiscal year that begins July 1, started a required 72-hour "cooling off" period before lawmakers can take a final vote. The approval of the budget is the one duty the Legislature is required to complete each session. The cooling-off period started at 2:53 p.m. Tuesday.
This year's spending plan carries more intrigue than usual; because Scott's tax-cut proposal was sharply reduced and a $250 million package of business incentives was dropped entirely, the governor is expected to lean heavily on his line-item veto pen. That, in turn, could expose Scott to the rare threat of veto overrides by the House and Senate.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, leaders on both sides of the Capitol said they have not planned for a potential special session to overturn any vetoes. But they also didn't rule out the prospect.
"Again, we're focusing on finishing Friday," Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said. "As I've said, the governor will have his say, and then the Legislature can decide where they go from here."
Lawmakers also continued to fend off questions about $123.1 million in projects that were inserted into the spending plan late Monday. The money went to everything from a construction project at the University of North Florida to an infusion of cash for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.
But leaders pointed out that this year's so-called "sprinkle lists" of projects were smaller than the $300 million showered on the budget last year in a meeting that took place near midnight, and that many of the projects funded through those lists this year had come up earlier.
"You've got to be thoughtful in the process and make sure the issues you're putting in there are things that have been thought through and vetted, and that's typically what that pot is used for," House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said.
Among the items funded in the list was a House request for $7 million in new radios for state law enforcement agencies. The project was dropped earlier in negotiations between House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, but added back on Monday.
Lee said requiring the House to fund the radio request through its sprinkle list meant House leaders had to "own it," and that it was different than a last-minute project that no one had heard of before.
"We knew it was an issue," Lee said. "It wasn't a new issue. And the fact that it came out late is not my preference, but it's a far sight better than having something come up for the first time."
Interest groups, meanwhile, began staking out positions for and against the agreement. The Florida Association of Free and Charitable Clinics praised the plan for including $10 million for its members.
"By funding free and charitable clinics, the Florida House and Senate are directly helping low income, uninsured Floridians across the state get the access to quality health-care services," Nicholas Duran, the association's executive director, said in a statement Tuesday. "We are grateful to lawmakers, Florida's surgeon general, and look forward to Governor Scott's approval."
Scott, however, vetoed $9.5 million for free and charitable clinics that lawmakers put in the current year budget, which expires June 30.
Some education advocates blasted decisions in the new budget, such as the Legislature including a teacher bonus program known as "Best and Brightest." Also, some critics said an increase in school funding was too stingy.
The Best and Brightest program has come under fire for tying the incentives, which could reach up to $10,000, to teachers' scores on college-admissions tests. The initiative has also been hit with administrative challenges.
"Not only was this law so poorly thought out that its gaps were easily challenged, but it also has not and will never, result in higher student achievement," said Pat Gardner, president of the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association, a union.
Fund Education Now, an advocacy group, called the Legislature's decision to increase per-student spending on public schools by 1 percent "disgraceful." Lawmakers have pointed out that the amount would be the largest in state history and that the budget includes education money that prevented an increase in local property taxes.
Crisafulli said he expected that change to the property taxes, known in the state's school-funding formula as "required local effort," will continue.
"I think the expectations of taxes in the future will certainly lie on the RLE and making sure that the Legislature isn't thought of as raising taxes and using that money for education," he said. "So I think moving forward that will be a component of many budgets to come in the future."