Legislative leaders reach $70 billion budget deal

The stage is set for an on-time adjournment of the 2012 Florida Legislative session.  Lawmakers are in a 72-hour cooling off period before they can vote on a proposed state budget. The vote can take place Friday. James Call reports House and Senate leaders have agreed to a $70 billion budget that cuts nearly $400 million from health care programs and another $300 million from the state university system.

The agreement had not yet been finalized when Senate President Mike Haridopolos spoke with reporters Monday afternoon. However, he did say the proposed 2012-2013 spending plan would meet the goals set by the Republican leadership in January.

"Which were of course a balanced budget without raising taxes and fees. And of course meeting the governor’s goal, which we share, which is increase education spending by a billion dollars. I think it’s a thoughtful budget and one which we can be proud of."

The Republican-controlled Legislature wants to close a $1.4 billion budget shortfall with spending cuts. And Democrats say some of the cuts are foolish if not counterproductive. Senate Democratic Leader, Nan Rich of Sunrise, says the $340 million reduction in state Medicaid spending will create needless suffering and cost the state money. Rich says lawmakers refused to fund at least three programs that would draw down dollars from the federal government.

"And it is just horrible and appalling that our state is not taking advantage of money that we that taxpayers have sent to Washington. So about $452 million that we have no budget authority to apply for the grant and draw the money down to the state of Florida."

Rich was talking about a maternal infant visiting program, a federal initiative to move elderly patients out of nursing homes and money to increase Medicaid payments to doctors. Republicans say the three items are part of the Affordable Health Care Act which the state is challenging in court.  Naples Rep. Matt Hudson, a Republican, was the House’s lead negotiator on the Health Care budget.

"Anything assigned to the Affordable Health Care Act it’s been the position of the Florida House and the State of Florida that we would not implement that and therefore we would not accept those dollars."

Hudson offers a two-word explanation as to why:

" It’s unconstitutional."

The budget deal also takes $300 million from the university system. The cuts are spread out among the 11 state schools based on a formula that includes the school’s reserve fund and tuition.  Florida State University would lose $65 million, Central Florida $52 million, South Florida $45 million.  Stuart Senator Eleanor Sobel, a Democrat, says the cuts don’t make sense. According to Texas-based Avanlanche Consulting, an economic development research company, high tech firms can’t find enough skilled workers to make a move to Florida profitable. Sobel says taking money from the universities will make it more difficult for Florida to attract high-tech companies and high-paying jobs.

"The governor talks about these STEM programs while you keep cutting funding from higher public education we’re not going to make the grade. The schools that have new technology and IT and Internet they spend much more money in those states in Massachusetts and California in higher education. We’re just cutting off the hand that feeds us. That’s what we are doing at this point."

Since the Great Recession began Florida has cut higher education by about 17 percent. Over-all, state funding for universities is about the same as it was 10 years ago while enrollment has increased by more than 24 percent.  Tampa Senator Jim Norman, a Republican, fought for more money for his hometown school, the University of South Florida. Norman says a projected revenue shortfall forced lawmakers to balance the ability of taxpayers to pay with the needs of the state.

"It’s a balance with households all over the state, you know foreclosures, people losing their homes you know all of those elements. You look at the overall picture we tried to balance and use what we had without hitting homeowners and taxpayers who are also struggling with a tremendous economic burden."

Despite the cuts to health care and higher education the budget includes local projects known as turkeys or pork. Among them are $5 million dollars for an Orlando business incubator, a million dollars for a Regatta Sports Center in Sarasota, and a million for a Brevard County achievement center.

The budget was printed and delivered to lawmakers Tuesday, meeting the constitutional requirement for a 72-hour waiting period before the final vote on it on Friday. Then, Governor Rick Scott with line-item veto authority has the last word on the spending plan.  The new budget will take effect July 1.