Thursday, Nov 27, 2014

State House, Senate offer heftier budgets


Published:   |   Updated: March 23, 2014 at 06:43 AM

TALLAHASSEE - House and Senate budget plans released late Thursday and early Friday contained few surprises, with the two chambers staking out their positions ahead of the bidding war that likely will get underway sometime next month.

Both plans weigh in substantially heavier than Gov. Rick Scott's proposal, which added up to nearly $74.2 billion. The House would spend more than a billion additional dollars, with its budget totaling $75.3 billion. The Senate would boost Scott's figure by $700 million, spending $74.9 billion.

"I believe this budget strikes the right balance between funding our state's priorities, providing meaningful tax relief to Floridians and maintaining over $1.2 billion in General Revenue reserves to prepare for any potential future economic uncertainty," House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, said in a statement issued Friday.

The Senate released its blueprint late Thursday, with Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, touting the budget as a relatively conservative plan.

"More funding does not equal better or more efficient government and we should not spend more because we have more," Negron said.

The chambers both plan to slice at least $500 million in taxes and fees, Scott's major goal for the session. They would both boost per-student funding on public schools by more than Scott's plan but less than is needed to get back to the all-time high before the economic recession. The Senate plan calls for an increase of nearly 2.6 percent, while the House would increase the amount by almost 3.1 percent.

House budget-writers would also not force universities to give up a portion of their existing budgets as part of a new performance-funding model proposed by the Florida Board of Governors. Instead of that idea, which state universities Chancellor Marshall Criser has called "skin in the game," the House would propose $60 million of funding for the program, including $45 million of new money.

The Senate would push $200 million through the performance-funding formula, including $100 million of additional funding and $100 million from the universities' existing budgets.

Each chamber would provide fewer positions for state government than Scott, with much of the difference coming in the Department of Children and Families. Scott has called for hiring 400 more child-protective investigators, while lawmakers are still discussing how many to add and how to do it.

Aside from education spending, the two plans are relatively similar on most of the major aspects of the budget. They differ on the amount of funding the Legislature would hold back in the form of reserves - $1.2 billion of unspent money in the House plan, not counting the state's rainy-day fund and Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund, compared to $1.5 billion in the Senate.

A conflict could be brewing, however, on the number of budget-related "conforming bills" that lawmakers will consider. In 2011, Senate moderates rebelled when leaders tried to put what they considered to be serious policy changes into the bills to force votes on contentious issues.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, raised concerns during a discussion of the budget earlier this week about the House going down the same road. A package of conforming bills released by the House on Friday has 14 pieces of legislation, compared to a half-dozen that have been posted on the Senate website.

The House Appropriations Committee is expected to consider its plan Wednesday; the Senate Appropriations Committee will meet Thursday.

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