Tweeking The State Budget
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida lawmakers on Monday put the finishing touches on a roughly $70 billion budget - all but ensuring that the regular session should end on time this Friday.
The final budget deal included a lot of wheeling and dealing as top Republicans agreed to put aside money for their priorities, while also deciding which parts of the budget would bear the brunt of cuts needed to make it all balance.
Lawmakers will vote later this week on a budget that does not include any tax hikes, but it does allow universities to raise tuition as much as 15 percent.
It also includes layoffs of state employees, the closing of some state prisons as well as cuts for hospitals and nursing homes and limits on how many times Medicaid patients can go to an emergency room.
"I think it's a thoughtful budget and one we can be proud of," said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.
During the final frantic day House and Senate budget negotiators agreed to break off the Lakeland branch campus of the University of South Florida and turn it into a stand-alone university.
It was a top priority for Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who had been pushing for the creation of Florida Polytechnic after asserting that he no longer trusted current USF officials to move it gradually toward independence.
Alexander's move was initially resisted by Tampa Bay legislators because at the same time the Senate was also proposing deep cuts to USF's main campus in Tampa.
It's not clear, however, if Gov. Rick Scott will go along with the proposal to create a new university.
He has been skeptical about the plan, but a spokeswoman for Scott said on Monday that he "will keep an open mind until we see what comes out of the legislative session in terms of funding and direction."
The decision to split off the branch campus right away upends a vote made last November by the Board of Governors.
The panel, which oversees the state's 11 public universities, laid out a series of benchmarks the branch had to reach in order to earn its independence.
Frank Brogan, the state university system chancellor, acknowledged that an independent Florida Polytechnic could take as long as four years to reach accreditation based on statements made by accrediting authorities.
When asked why anyone would go to an unaccredited school, Brogan said, "I don't know."
"It's unusual for an institution to start from a blank sheet of paper," Brogan said.
Some of the other decisions made in the final day of negotiations included:
- Signing off on a formula on how to cut state universities by $300 million. State legislators insist that the universities have enough in reserve accounts to absorb the blow, but the final deal calls for a nearly $69 million cut to Florida State University and a nearly $53 million cut to University of Central Florida in Orlando.
- Denying state workers a raise for the sixth straight year, but keeping health insurance premiums the same.
Senate leaders, however, made a unilateral decision to raise the premiums that will be charged to state senators.
Currently legislators pay $8.34 a month for individual coverage and $30 a month for family coverage.
That's the same amount that about 32,000 state workers and top officials such as Gov. Rick Scott pay. Rank-and-file state workers, however, pay $50 a month for individual coverage and $180 a month for family coverage.
"We believe we should pay the same amount for health insurance as the people who work here," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville and the next Senate president.
- Crafting a plan to replenish the state's depleted school construction account. Part of the plan also calls for putting in $250 million to pay for projects that had been put on hold earlier this year by state officials.
The budget deal means legislators will finish their work on time.
The budget has to sit on the desks of lawmakers for 72 hours before a final vote can be taken.
The session is scheduled to end on March 9.
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