After two sessions, 108 days and one rancorous health-care debate, the final gavels fell Friday in the House and Senate following approval of a $78.7 billion budget that settled few of the issues dividing the Capitol.
The Senate voted 37-0 to approved the spending plan (SB 2500-A) for the year that begins July 1. The House followed suit moments later, passing the bill by a 96-17 margin. Twenty-one of 37 Democrats voting in the House joined Republicans in supporting the measure; Rep. John Tobia of Melbourne Beach was the only GOP member to oppose the plan.
Gov. Rick Scott will now have the opportunity to use his line-item veto power to strike spending that he opposes. He must sign the bill by June 30 to avoid a government shutdown.
The votes came at the end of a special session sparked by a fierce disagreement during the annual spring meeting of the Legislature over expanding health coverage and funding hospitals. In the end, lawmakers essentially split the difference, setting aside a Senate plan that would have used Medicaid expansion funding to help low-income Floridians purchase private insurance while using $400 million of state money to help offset hospitals’ losses from a declining pool of federal funding.
Taxes were cut by $427 million, mostly in small amounts Floridians will save on their phone, cable and satellite television bills. But those savings are erased for most by the Legislature’s raising of school property taxes by close to $500 million to pay for increased school funding, which will increase by $780 million, or $207 per pupil (a 3 percent increase).
Some $230 million was set aside for housing, scholarships and other social services, just $55 million was set aside to acquite environmentally sensitive lands despite a constitutional amendment approved by voters that requires the Legislature to earmark $743 million for the environment. More than $200 million of that required spending is devoted to salaries and operations.
But the road to doing it was long and tortured, with Republicans leaders in the House and Senate trading shots in the media. Senate Democrats at one point sued the House over whether it was unconstitutional for the House to end the regular session early. The Supreme Court ruled that it was, but declined to order lawmakers to return before the special session.
Some of the bitterness clearly lingered Friday, as the Senate debated the budget. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, blasted the House for resisting some incentives — chiefly for the entertainment industry and sports stadiums — while supporting others.
“If we’re not going to do incentives for anybody, and if that’s your philosophy, then I respect that,” Latvala said. “But when you won’t do incentives for bills that move all the way through the process, that are adopted by overwhelming majorities of both houses of the Legislature, and you, in the dark of night, stick incentives and appropriations in the budget for the same kind of projects owned by millionaires and having large entry fees, large tuitions or whatever, that’s just plain wrong.”
Latvala appeared to be alluding to the House pumping in $2 million in funding for IMG Academy, a sports-centered private academy in Bradenton, as both chambers showered $300 million in taxpayer money on an array of projects during a negotiating session late Monday night. Tuition for high-school students at the academy will run as high as $70,800 next year.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, defended the project on the grounds of economic development and education.
“The appeal to me is the opportunity for more choice in education, an opportunity for a segment of a student population not just from this state but from around the world to come to Florida and take advantage of an opportunity that’s provided nowhere else,” Crisafulli said.
On Friday, Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, slammed the House for stymieing the Senate on the health-care expansion plan; House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, famously vowed never to “dance” with the Senate on the issue. Joyner also blasted a lack of money spent on land conservation and a tax cut for cable-TV and cell-phone services that she said was measly.
“What this all came down to was a singular devotion to a political ideology obedient to the few at the expense of the many — the many Floridians, the 1 million people who need and deserve quality, accessible health care. … Make no mistake: The House did dance,” she said. “But not with the people.”
There were also divisions within the upper chamber. Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, questioned whether lawmakers were spending enough on land after three-quarters of Florida voters backed a constitutional amendment in November setting aside a portion of real-estate taxes for land and water conservation. Lawmakers have interpreted the amendment broadly, spending money on salaries for some state workers and a raft of environmental projects.
“There’s a fundamental difference between taking money that the people of Florida voted by 75 percent to acquire land (and) to spend money on clean-up programs for other people’s pollution,” Altman said.
But Sen. Alan Hays, the Umatilla Republican who oversees the environmental budget, defended the plan. He also downplayed the significance of the vote on the amendment, noting that those who approved the ballot initiative only added up to about a fifth of the state’s total population.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that 75 percent of the people of this state voted to buy land,” he said. “That’s just not true.”
The House, which debated the budget on Thursday, was largely quiet before the votes.
After the session, relieved lawmakers met in the rotunda between the two chambers to exchange hugs and a few parting moments. They are set to return to the Capitol in 89 days for committee meetings ahead of the 2016 legislative session, scheduled to begin earlier than usual in January. House and Senate leaders have already disagreed about whether the hospital funding approved this session will be on the table again next year.
But Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he believed any anger between the two chambers would dissipate before lawmakers return to work.
“This tension is sort of built into the system,” Lee said. “And while it sometimes … bubbles up at moments over particular policy disputes, time is an ally here. And I think, over time, that we’ll reset the clock.”
–News Service of Florida and FlaglerLive