The Florida Legislature is now halfway towards its goal of a state budget for the coming fiscal year. Tom Flanigan reports the House plan passed on a strict party line vote Thursday. The Senate is expected to have its version of the budget ready for a vote sometime next week.
For weeks, members of the Florida House had labored in endless committee meetings. They discussed the various things the state spends money on…such as public schools, transportation, prisons, the courts….dozens of separate items. On Thursday, February ninth, the whole enchilada came together on the House floor in the form of a sixty-nine-point-two billion dollar budget. That’s when and where the partisan battle lines were drawn and the back and forth debate began. Bartow Republican Ben Albritton saying the budget just reflected the will of the people.
“And I know I have heard constituents that have called, that have been in interaction with my office and with me personally, saying, ‘You’re doing the right thing. You’re being thoughtful about the tax burden that I have in my life.’ That means something to me.”
Jacksonville Democrat Mia Jones said she was hearing something different from her constituents…
“We have assaulted minority health, we’ve taken millions of dollars out of the budget for HBCUs, minority crime prevention and foster care. So today, I stand in opposition to this budget.”
Jones’ fellow Democrat, Dwight Bullard from Miami, accused his Republican colleagues of shortchanging the needs of the state.
“Simple textbook definition of irresponsibility is the inability or lack thereof of being responsible. So somewhere along the lines, we chose not to be responsible. Thank you and that’s why I can’t support the budget.”
While St. Pete Republican Jeff Brandes insisted the budget absolutely met the definition of responsibility.
“We have absolutely no idea in the next six months – in the next year, in the next two years – what the federal budget will look like; what the federal tax policy will look like. And so I think it was absolutely responsible what we’ve done here, which is hold the line on taxes; hold the line on spending.”
Orlando Democrat Geraldine Thompson charged she and other minority party members didn’t have a whole lot of input to the process.
“We participate in representative democracy where the majority has the prerogative to decide, but the minority has the prerogative to be heard and we have not been heard in terms of putting this budget together.”
To which St. Petersburg Republican Jim Frishe countered Democrats like Thompson were equal players and perfectly free to express their views by voting.
“Be free to spend $12.7 billion – billion with a ‘b’ – for pre-k through 12 education. That’s more money than I’m going to make this year, but be free to do it. Be free to spend $5.9 billion for higher education in the state of Florida. Be free. Vote for the bill.”
On a bit more conciliatory note, Republican Kelli Stargel of Lakeland admitted the house budget was by no means a perfect document.
“Nobody wanted to cut some of the things we had to cut. Nobody wanted to limit the services that we had to limit here. But we had to be responsible and we had to pass a balanced budget. If we don’t do that, the problems going forward are greater. The burdens on our children are greater.”
After much more of this kind of debate, the House budget vote finally came. “Yays” beat “Nays” right along party lines, seventy-nine to thirty-eight. House Speaker Dean Cannon says the budgetary ball is now down the hall.
“We’ll now wait and see what the senate does with their budget and then we’ll do what we do every year, which is see how they compare. I think they made comments earlier today that the senate anticipated not being too far apart from the house, so we’ll have to wait and see.”
Senate Budget Chief J.D. Alexander agrees the two budgets are similar, but not quite identical:
“We’re a little heavier in health and human service reductions than they are. We’re a little heavier, or spend more, in K-12 than they have. We provide more budget in community colleges and universities. We’re significantly higher in the D.O.T. work plan than they are.”
Senators may be ready to vote on their spending plan by mid-week. Then a select group from each chamber will start ironing out the differences.