State News
5:10 pm
Fri April 4, 2014

Negotiations Between House And Senate On $75B Budget Set To Begin

House budget proposal for Education for the 2014-2015 fiscal year
Credit Florida House of Representatives

The Florida House and Senate are set to begin hammering out a state spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year after both chambers approved their respective budget proposals this week. Now comes the hard part: reaching a consensus.

Legislative leaders say this year’s budget process has been much smoother than in years past. After all, when there’s a budget surplus, more people get the things they want.

House Speaker Will Weatherford and Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel took a victory lap after the House approved its budget proposal. Florida lawmakers are poised to spend about $75 billion for the upcoming fiscal year to fund education, health services, criminal and civil justice, the environment and more state priorities. While the state is flush with cash thanks to a nationwide economic recovery, some lawmakers find the current spending proposals incomplete. For instance, Governor Rick Scott proposed state employee pay raises, but the House budget doesn’t allow for them, in most cases.

“They’re not represented by this budget and they’re not helped by it," said Rep. Joe Saunders (D-Orlando) during House floor debate on the budget. Saunders believes several issues have been ignored, like resolving an ongoing dispute about online sales tax collections along with how the state is choosing to fund its merit-based Bright Futures Scholarship program students.

"[There was] $42 million moved out of the Bright Futures budget because eligibility caps were raised, but we could have taken that money and increased the awards for the students who are actually getting it," he said.

But the kicker for most of the House Democrats, says Jacksonville Representative Mia Jones, is the Republican majority’s continued refusal to expand Medicaid eligibility.

"I have a grave concern, I have a heavy heart, because I recognize that we have an opportunity here, and for the second year in a row we as a chamber, are going to vote on a budget that does not include healthcare coverage for all Floridians," she said.

The Medicaid expansion is an optional part of the federal Affordable Care Act and the U.S. government is prepared to give Florida $52 billion to fund the increase of enrollees. But Republican lawmakers insist there’s no guarantee that money would arrive, and the state would be left to pay the bill on its own.

There’s also likely to be a fight over how to fund the state’s public schools. Both the House and Senate are proposing increases for education—but a good chunk of that increase is coming from local contributions in the form of property taxes.

“Property taxes aren’t being increased. What’s happening is, property values are going up and they pay more in property taxes, so I think that’s a disingenuous argument," says House Speaker Will Weatherford who is pushing back against critics of the education budget. Just a few years ago, the Legislature forced local governments to lower their property taxes because of increases in property values. Weatherford says that’s different.

“The tax cut we did then, and the reason we did it are different than what we’re talking about in regard to our budget today, but, fair point.” 

And then, there’s the continuing question of how to address public school construction and maintenance projects.  There’s a massive backlog of projects at public schools, at community and state colleges, and at public universities. But the state hasn’t had much money to spend because the trust fund that supports those services, called PECO, is maxed out. The House and Senate are proposing different means of funding those projects, and that, says Republican Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, could become a sticking point.

“The house passed about $300 million more in PECO funding. I can’t predict how much the Senate might go up, but that’s one area where I’m very open to putting in more money," he says.

The House is proposing to spend more on PECO projects than the Senate—and it has also come up with  a way to fund future projects, a provision Negron says he’s interested in. Appointees to the House and Senate negotiations committee have been named. Those conferences traditionally will mark the start of the second half of the legislative session.