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House And Senate Pass Budgets, Get Ready For Talks

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State Capitol (Source: David Sutta/CBS4)

State Capitol (Source: David Sutta/CBS4)

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami) – The House and Senate approved plans Thursday to spend about $75 billion in the budget year that begins July 1, setting up negotiations between the two sides over how much to devote to priorities ranging from education to child welfare to the environment.

Despite squabbling on both sides of the Capitol about elements of each proposal, the measures passed by lopsided margins. The House approved its $75.3 billion blueprint on a 100-16 vote, with most Democrats joining the Republican majority in voting for the bill. The Senate followed that up by almost unanimously passing its $74.9 billion budget, though the vote briefly caused murmuring about one supporter.

Leaders in both chambers said they should be able reach agreements on allocations — overall spending caps for broad areas of the budget — in the coming days and start scheduling meetings of joint House-Senate negotiation committees.

“The differences aren’t as extraordinary as they have been in some years, so I don?t think we should have much difficulty getting to allocations relatively quickly,” said House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.

“My hope is that by the end of next week, we can actually get started on conference committees,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

In the House, most of the drama had long ago drained out of the debate over the plan. Rank-and-file Democrats lined up behind the budget — which increased funding for schools, child welfare and services for people with disabilities — even as their caucus leaders blasted it.

Republicans were quick to drive home the point.

“How can you not vote for a budget that takes care of our kids, our seniors and our disabled?” asked Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples.

But Democratic leaders said the budget didn’t go far enough because, among other things, it leaves out raises for state employees and relies on a windfall from local property taxes to help boost school funding to levels that still fall short of the all-time high for per-student spending.

“Clearly, this budget misses the mark and it has abandoned Florida’s middle class,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach.

In the Senate, where budget votes in good times are often broadly bipartisan, there was even less resistance to the overall plan. But provisions that could lay the groundwork for splitting up a joint College of Engineering operated by Florida A&M University and Florida State University led to an emotional plea by supporters of FAMU to leave the school as is.

The Senate budget already included $10 million for FSU to begin the planning and construction of an on-campus, stand-alone engineering school. An amendment authored by Sen. John Thrasher — a St. Augustine Republican widely believed to be a front-runner to become FSU’s next president — also put $3 million in operating funds behind the idea.

But African-American lawmakers said the proposal raised memories of a painful time when the law school at historically black Florida A&M was shuttered in favor of a similar school at FSU.

“The fear of the (alumni) of Florida A&M University and many others in this state, particularly those of color, is that this is the beginning of the end of our institution,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, one of the last graduates of the original FAMU law school. ” … I want to know that the lights won’t be dimmed and the door closed on the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering.”

Thrasher, who helped reopen the FAMU law school in 2000, said he hoped the proposal would strengthen FAMU’s program, in part by getting rid of a requirement that students at the school meet the same admissions requirements.

“If I thought for one second that this was not going to enhance the Florida A&M University engineering school, I wouldn’t do it,” he said.

The amendment was approved on a voice vote.

The Senate also eliminated a proposal to cut $3.5 million from state colleges’ four-year degree programs and funnel the money into state universities.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, had pushed the provision because of concerns that state colleges, which are supposed to focus on two-year degrees, were beginning to duplicate the offerings of state universities.

But college presidents struck a deal with Negron to have the funding restored. In return, no new four-year programs for state colleges will be approved before June 2015.

The initial 38-2 tally on the overall budget caused a ripple across social media when questions were raised about whether Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto, who is running in a special election for a congressional seat in Southwest Florida, cast her own vote. Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, had a campaign event in the district shortly after her vote was cast.

Thrasher, who also chairs the Senate Rules Committee, later said on the floor that Benacquisto’s button was pushed by mistake. The Senate agreed to delete her original vote for the budget; Thrasher said she would submit a vote after the roll call to the secretary of the Senate, as lawmakers are allowed to do when they miss votes.
This report is by News Service of Florida reporter Brandon Larrabee.

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