TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/News Service of Florida) – Lawmakers passed an election-year budget of $77.1 billion — the largest state spending plan in history — before closing out the 2014 legislative session and heading home to campaign.

Lawmakers approved the budget by lopsided margins — 102-15 in the House and a unanimous 40-0 in the Senate. Moments after the final votes, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz brought down the final gavels of the legislative session, ending the annual meeting at 10:40 p.m. Friday.

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Gov. Rick Scott praised the results of the session, his last before he faces voters in November.

“Let’s think about what we accomplished: $500 million back in Florida families’ pockets. Lower tuition for every Florida family,” Scott said after the conclusion. “It doesn’t matter what country you were born in, what family or what zip code. You will have your shot to live the American dream.”

Democrats were less impressed.

“Florida’s middle class deserves better than what’s left over, after Tallahassee Republicans have finished giving the special interests big tax handouts,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant said in a statement issued moments after the session ended. “Republicans refused to even vote on legislation to raise the minimum wage, guarantee equal pay for women, invest in public schools, and expand access to health care. They put the middle class last.”

The budget, lawmakers’ only constitutionally required duty, spreads around a hefty surplus, adding new money to public schools, state colleges and universities, environmental projects and child welfare while leaving room for a $500 million tax cut likely to serve as a centerpiece of Scott’s re-election campaign.

Critics say budget-writers also made sure to pump money into pork-barrel projects, some of which could fall to Scott’s line-item veto.

Due largely to the spending plan’s generosity, few Democrats dared vote against the measure. Only a third of the House Democratic caucus — including leaders and members from some of the most liberal districts in the state — opposed the bill.

Supporters touted the plan’s highlights, including an education budget that was the largest in Florida history in terms of its total amount.

“We are now the gold standard for how to fund education on a pure volume of dollars amount,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. “And I think that’s a great message to send to every teacher, student and parent: that public education matters, we’re serious about it, and we’ve put our money where our mouth is.”

But those who opposed the blueprint argued that it didn’t do enough. On a per-student basis, education funding is still almost $190 below where it stood before the 2008 financial collapse, and thousands of Floridians remain on waiting lists for state health-care services.

“The economy is good. We’re moving in the right direction. There’s more money around. But there’s a problem with priorities,” said Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, Scott’s most likely Democratic opponent, issued a statement Friday calling for a special session to put more money into schools.

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“Governor Scott needs to fix this budget. He should use his line-item veto and judge every pork project by one test: Would this money be better spent helping Florida’s children? After vetoing the pork spending, Scott should call the legislature back to town and tell them to put that money into our public schools,” Crist said.

Members of Crist’s own party, though, were among those defending the millions of dollars in local projects stuffed into the plan.

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said he was glad the budget is “chock-full” of programs that help small communities, while Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Royal Palm Beach, said the plan will bring road and drinking water improvements to western Palm Beach County.

“The roads in the Glades are worse than a third-world country, and that is not an exaggeration,” Abruzzo said. “How can you ever have economic development when you don’t have the basic infrastructure?”

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said the Legislature spent money responsibly in the budget.

“But at the same time, we believe that our members have initiatives that are important to their district and we allowed them to bring those initiatives before our budget process,” he said. “Some of them went in. some of them did not.”

The budget votes capped off a frenetic day of deal-making at the Capitol, as lawmakers put the finishing touches on bills expanding eligibility for the state’s de facto voucher program, allowing some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates and setting up a process to rank sports-stadium subsidy proposals.

A handful of items, though, didn’t make it. Weatherford’s drive to overhaul the state’s pension system died in the Senate before the final day. As the session ended, wide-ranging bills dealing with insurance and health-care issues fell apart under the weight of lengthy lists of amendments.

“We left a little bit on the table,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville. “That’s why they make next year.”

Senior writer Dara Kam and reporter Jim Turner contributed to this report.

This report is by Brandon Larrabee of The News Service of Florida.


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