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Florida House, Senate Pass Pain-Filled Budget Bills

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(Source: CBS4)

(Source: CBS4)

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/AP) – Both the Florida House and Senate have passed budget bills, and while they differ in a number of ways they are in harmony on one point; whatever is eventually passed will be painful to almost every state funded program in Florida and people who depend on them.

The two bills must now be combined into one final proposal both houses can accept before the result can be sent to Governor Rick Scott for consideration.

Virtually no sector of state government, from public schools to programs for the sick and disabled, is spared from the budget axe in spending bills passed Thursday.

GOP lawmakers who control both chambers are holding firm to their no-new-taxes commitment, with austere appropriations bills of nearly $70 billion that would slash almost $4 billion in spending.

Democrats argued that House and Senate bills alike are balanced on the backs of public employees, in effect imposing an income tax on them.

Florida’s future is grim under either proposal.

Both chambers would dock the paychecks of teachers, state workers and many local employees include police and firefighters to reduce state, city and county government contributions to their retirement plan by up to $1.1 billion. The spending cuts also are expected to result in widespread layoffs.

The pension plan contributions and spending cuts are in response to a $3.75 billion gap between anticipated state revenues and the growing cost of high-priority to critical spending needs.

The biggest part of that gap comes from nearly $3 billion in stimulus money included in the current budget that won’t be available in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, as the federal program expires.

As lawmakers debated the budget bills, hundreds of public employees and union members, including doctors and nurses, went to Gov. Rick Scott’s office three floors below the legislative chambers to protest the cuts. They delivered “pink slips” for Scott to the governor’s office. Scott, who had proposed even deeper spending cuts and even bigger employee pension contributions, was not there. The Republican governor was in South Florida visiting a state employment office and doing media interviews.

The House passed its appropriations bill on a 78-39 party line roll call.

The Senate earlier voted 33-6 for its appropriations bill (SB 2000) with all Republicans in favor and Democrats almost evenly split. Some senators from both parties who voted for the bill, though, said they objected to its harsh treatment of public employees and hoped that it will be eased during coming negotiations to resolve differences between the House and Senate.

Those talks are expected to begin next week.

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston said she couldn’t vote for her chamber’s budget because her colleagues decided “to cause unnecessary pain to a lot of vulnerable people in our state.”

College and university tuition would go up by 5 percent in the House bill and 8 percent in the Senate plan. Hospitals and nursing homes would be paid less for Medicaid patients as part of a $1 billion cut in the state-federal program for low-income and disabled people.

The Senate budget also would reduce spending for transplant recipients and other “medically needy” patients with catastrophic illness but who lack sufficient insurance coverage. As of next April it would stop covering prescription drugs, transportation, hearing aids and glasses, but it would continue paying doctor bills.

About $1 billion would come out of public schools in each budget, but school districts would get some of that money back due to savings they’ll have due to their employees’ retirement contributions.

Environmental spending including land purchases and Everglades restoration also would be slashed. Both plans would cut prison spending by privatizing correctional facilities — in an 18-county area of South Florida in the Senate bill but just in Broward and Miami-Dade counties in the House version.

The Senate’s $69.8 billion appropriations bill is $3.3 billion higher than the House measure, but most of that gap is due to accounting differences.

Two key differences are that the Senate brings the state’s five water management districts into the state budget for the first time and continues to include county court clerks. The House plan includes neither.

The House also spends less on roads and other transportation projects than the Senate.

While both chambers have turned thumbs down on tax increases, they’ve also rejected Scott’s proposal for tax cuts that would mainly benefit businesses and property owners. The one exception comes in the Senate’s plan that includes relatively small property tax cuts for the water management districts.

In his “jobs budget,” Scott had proposed $1.7 billion in tax cuts, arguing they’d help attract new businesses and jobs to the state.

Legislative leaders, though, say Florida can’t afford that level of tax relief.

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