[Tallahassee, FL] After a strange trip that at one time threatened to short-circuit the session, the Florida Legislature approved a state budget a shade over $70 billion on Friday, allowing lawmakers to leave the Capitol one time even as a Florida Supreme Court ruling ensured they would return.
The spending plan adds more than $1 billion in state funding to public education – a key goal of Gov. Rick Scott, even though school districts have argued that the money doesn’t make up for a series of cuts to public education in recent years. It drains $300 million from university reserves to help in closing a state budget gap.
And the budget slashes some health-care services at the same time a conforming bill forces counties to pay millions of dollars in disputed Medicaid charges, no doubt causing consternation among local governments.
In an advance copy of his weekly radio address, Scott reveled in the victory.
“I would like to thank Speaker [Dean] Cannon and Senate President [Mike] Haridopolos, as well as the entire Legislature, for putting Florida’s children first,” he said.
Gov. Rick Scott delivers his Weekly Radio Address
But as they debated the spending measure, Democrats returned to the same refrain that they have sounded often as the state’s economy has lagged and revenues have dwindled: Republicans are stubbornly refusing to get rid of unneeded tax relief or accept money because of its ties to President Barack Obama‘s agenda.
Lawmakers turned down $438.5 million in federal health-care funding because it was tied to the federal health-care bill Republicans derisively call “Obamacare.”
“This Legislature can find the will to dip into universities’ reserves to fund and plug gaps, but it is unwilling to take funds from the federal government or to close loopholes where people are not paying their fair share,” said Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich (D-34/Weston).
In the end, seven of the 12 Democrats in the Senate voted with the Republican majority, while three Republicans bolted their party to oppose the measure.
Meanwhile, in the House, Speaker-designate Will Weatherford (R-61/Wesley Chapel) scolded Democrats for locking down against a state budget that included many of their suggestions and projects.
“I watched all the bipartisanship in the committee,” Weatherford said. “Why is it not bipartisan now?”
But even some lawmakers who voted for the budget opposed related bills, such as the Medicaid billing measure. That measure forces counties that dispute how much they must pay into the Medicaid system to go ahead and pay, though they can get a discounted rate, or if they think they’re right, they can fight it and try to recoup the money.
House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford wonders where all the bipartisanship went
But the counties say it’s a big cost shift that will cost them money for the state’s mistakes and opponents like Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R-36/Miami) argued was unfair to counties that dispute the charges.
“We don’t just take money from people because we need the money or we want the money,” said Diaz de la Portilla. “We can’t even prove that we’re owed the money, or quantify it.”
There were echoes of last year’s implosion of the session when some conforming bills were derailed; a health-care bill for the University of Florida was defeated 20-20 the first time in the Senate. But the chamber eventually reversed itself.
At times, the state budget and when it would be done served as the major theme of the session. After lawmakers left town last spring, a cheery revenue forecast had raised hopes that lawmakers would be able to avoid the painful cuts of recent years.
But the chance of the budget surplus evaporated in the economic troubles of the late summer and lawmakers were forced to contemplate deeper reductions.
The dramatic swings in the economy brought warnings from Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R-26/Merritt Island) that lawmakers might need to adjourn early and return when the revenue picture for the state was clearer.
(L-R) Dean Cannon, Gov. Rick Scott, Mike Haridopolos, Lt. Gov. Carroll
The House charged ahead anyway, with Speaker Dean Cannon (R-35/Winter Park) arguing that there was no reason to pull back. The Senate eventually joined the House the day after the once-a-decade redistricting process had finished and Haridopolos’ concerns about the revenue were apparently alleviated.
Even then, there were speed bumps. Residents from rural Jefferson County protested plans to close a prison that was the community’s economic backbone; lawmakers approved a plan that would keep the facility open.
The Senate battled over cuts to the University of South Florida that Tampa Bay-area lawmakers argued were revenge for the campus resisting a push by Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander (R-17/Lake Wales) to gain independence for the university’s Lakeland campus.
The cuts were eventually softened, but Alexander got his university.
By: Brandon Larrabee/The News Service of Florida
Lead image: Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford gets a standing ovation from all his House colleagues on the house floor after finishing his closing remarks on the committee’s final product, approved minutes later by the House Friday, Feb. 3, 2012 (photo: FL House)