The Florida Legislature overwhelmingly approved a state budget and ended the annual session Monday, after narrowly avoiding a meltdown over a controversial measure that makes sweeping changes to the state’s education system.
The $82.4 billion budget for the year that begins July 1 passed the House on a 98-14 vote, and the Senate on a 34-4 vote. All told, when combined with other legislation approved Monday, the House and Senate approved about $83.1 billion in spending.
The budget package includes a modest increase in per-student spending through the state’s main education formula, $521 million in Medicaid cuts for hospitals and far-reaching changes to education across the board.
There was little drama over the budget vote in either chamber. In both cases, lawmakers gave the bills more than enough support to overcome the possibility of a veto by Gov. Rick Scott.
Republican lawmakers tried after the session to downplay any talk of Scott taking that step, which would be extraordinarily rare.
“I think there’s a lot in the budget that the governor’s going to like,” said Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.
Instead, the biggest challenge lawmakers faced was getting approval for a delicate, tit-for-tat agreement on budget-related bills that moved through the House and Senate in quick succession Monday night: a House education bill for a Senate higher education bill, a package on economic-development funding for a bill on state employees’ pay and benefits.
The closest showdown came on a 278-page education bill, favored by the House, that emerged from budget negotiations Friday evening. That measure covered everything from charter schools and teacher bonuses to school uniforms and designating September as “American Founders’ Month.”
The most notable parts of the legislation (HB 7069) were a proposal known as “schools of hope,” which would encourage charter schools to locate near academically struggling public schools, and an expansion of the “Best and Brightest” teacher bonus program.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, continued Monday night to call the legislation “the greatest educational K-12 policy that we’ve passed in the history of the state.”
But several senators rebelled against the sprawling bill and the process that produced it. Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who also serves as head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, slammed the bill as an attempt to push otherwise unpopular education proposals through the Senate.
“Most of these issues have been around for years,” Montford, a former Leon County schools superintendent, said. “Some of them have been before this body. They’ve just never been accepted. And the reason they weren’t accepted was because this body came to the conclusion that it was not good for students.”
Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said the bill would undermine the Senate’s reputation for independence and bipartisan collegiality.
“I love this Senate too much for me to support this bill or the concept of bills that do this,” he said.
Even Senate leaders seemed wary of the legislation. Sen. David Simmons, who chairs the chamber’s education budget subcommittee, voted against the bill after presenting it to the Senate.
In an unusual opening to the day’s session, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, essentially apologized for the bill.
“If there’s fault to be had for one of these bills that has gotten a little bit out of control, just understand that we won’t do this again under my watch on this committee,” Latvala said. “I promise you.”
But senators who reluctantly backed the bill also made no secret of the stakes: If it were rejected by the Senate, the House would essentially shut down the budget votes Monday and force the Legislature into a special session.
“This is really more than a vote on this bill,” said Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze. “It’s a vote to come back here in special session. If we vote this down, we will be back here in a few weeks. There’s no question about it.”
In the end, the legislation passed the Senate, 20-18. A tie on the legislation would have killed it.
That the budget and related bills did not pass until Monday was already a sign that, in some ways, the budget process had broken down. Lawmakers were scheduled to end the session last week, but failed to approve a compromise on the budget in time to allow for a constitutionally required 72-hour “cooling off” period before Friday night.
There were other measures tied up in the budget process that also attracted controversy — including a bill (SB 7022) that gives pay raises to state workers but also includes changes to retirement and health-care benefits that some Democrats found hard to stomach.
“On the cover it says pay increases,” said Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee. “But inside the book it says something else.”
Attention quickly shifted Monday night to Scott, who has openly mused about the possibility of vetoing the entire spending package, after lawmakers ignored his push for economic-development incentives, increased funding for tourism marketing and improvements to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.
House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said she planned to spend the entire summer “at least a couple-hour plane ride away,” in case she needed to return to Tallahassee following a veto.
But even she conceded that with the lopsided margins for the budget in both chambers, a veto by Scott would be unlikely to have much of an effect.
“I don’t think that it would change the outcome,” she said. “It would just send a message.”
Lawmakers Approve Slimmed Down Tax Cuts
Floridians are in line for a pair of three-day sales tax “holidays” — for the hurricane season and for back-to-school shopping — and will no longer pay the “tampon tax,” under a measure approved by lawmakers Monday night.
But the slimmed-down tax cut package (HB 7109), which still requires Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, went through a series of late changes amid continued volleying between the House and Senate as the 2017 legislative session came to a close, three days behind schedule.
The tax package — which falls far short of Scott’s request for $618.4 million in cuts — also offers a modest reduction to a 6 percent tax on commercial rents.
The final creation of the package offered a glimpse of the fight between the House and the Senate as lawmakers had to extend the 60-day annual session — scheduled to end last Friday — to complete a budget.
The Senate, which last week trimmed the House’s $300 million tax-cut proposal to just over $90 million next year, voted 34-4 on Monday to approve what Senate Finance and Tax Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, called a “reasonable tax package.”
A short-time later — as the Senate announced it had passed “broad-based tax relief” — the House voted 105-3 to send the measure back to the Senate, after tacking on a pair of amendments tied to county tax-collector offices. One of the amendments was part of an effort to allow counties to outsource license-tag services to private contractors.
The Senate responded by refusing to accept the changes. Stargel, who worked with the House on the package, said the problem was in how the eleventh-hour changes were proposed.
“It’s about at the last minute, at the last hour, of the last day, of what has been a very difficult session, that we do an amendment that we were not prepared to do,” Stargel said.
With little comment, a short time later House withdrew its changes before voting 108-3 to approve the tax-cut package and send it to Scott.
A key feature of the package is a sales-tax holiday Aug. 4 to Aug. 6, timed with the start of the school year. During the period, shoppers will not have to pay sales taxes on clothes, backpacks and footwear under $60, school supplies that cost $15 or less, and personal computers and accessories valued under $750.
The tax break is expected to account for $34.8 million of the package.
A hurricane-season tax holiday, set for June 2 to June 4, would give shoppers a break on items such as self-powered radios, tarpaulins, first-aid kits, battery packs, and portable generators that sell for less than $750.
One of the highest-profile parts of the package focused on eliminating sales taxes on feminine-hygiene products — an issue known as the “tampon tax.”
“I have gotten more positive email on that than I have on any other bill I’ve sponsored in this Legislature,” said Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican who sponsored legislation eliminate the tax.
The House had initially rolled out a nearly $300 million tax-cut package that also would have eliminated taxes on diapers and given a sales-tax holiday on Veterans Day for honorably discharged U.S. military veterans.
Also, the House proposal would have temporarily cut the commercial rent tax by 1.5 percentage points, a move projected to save businesses $190.7 million next fiscal year. Business groups have long lobbied for reducing or eliminating the tax.
But the final package did not include the veterans’ tax holiday or diaper discount and reduced the commercial rent tax to 5.8 percent.
Republicans, nevertheless, touted the package.
“The money belongs to the people, not the government,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. ”When we go from one fiscal year to the next and our revenues increase — if we believe in that principle — then part of that increase goes back to the pockets of people who earned that money.”
But Sen. Gary Farmer of Fort Lauderdale, one of four Senate Democrats to vote against the bill, argued that sales taxes are needed to provide basic services, from roads and parks to “public and charter” schools.
“We choose to live in a civilized society,” Farmer said. “We live in a collective society, the greater good for all of us, so we all have to chip in.”
Republicans also are touting another decision during the session that could provide tax savings in the future to homeowners.
The Legislature approved a proposed constitutional amendment for the 2018 ballot that would expand the homestead exemption by $25,000.
–News Service of Florida