TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Putting aside some of the acrimony of the past few years, Florida lawmakers on Wednesday took their first votes in favor of rival $74 billion spending plans.
It was clear that pumping an extra $4 billion into the state budget — some of which was sprinkled around to hometown projects, state worker pay raises and more money for public schools — had helped remove some of the rancor of the last few years.
"Obviously I think it's easier having a little light at the end of the tunnel," said Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland and House budget chief.
The main Senate budget panel approved its $74.3 billion budget swiftly and with little debate. That contrasted with the House where Democrats on the main House budget panel voted against that chamber's $74.4 billion proposal.
Democrats are still fuming over top Republicans' continued opposition to using federal aid to expand Medicaid to cover up to 1 million residents now without health insurance coverage. The Senate has come up with an alternative plan, but it's unclear if the House would go along.
"My main concern is not so much what's in the budget, it's what's not in the budget," said Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale.
House Republicans chided Democrats for the vote, especially since their budget includes more than $1 billion for schools and a $1,400 pay raise for state workers.
"It is disappointing that House Democrats chose to focus on one area of disagreement in this budget rather than show their support for the numerous funding increases that they agree are needed in our state," said House Majority Leader Steve Precourt, R-Orlando in a written statement.
One of Gov. Rick Scott's top priorities has not been budgeted: eliminating the 6 percent sales tax charged on equipment purchased by manufacturers. The House has a tax cut package, but it primarily consists of having a three day sales tax holiday in August on clothes, school supplies and computers.
House Speaker Will Weatherford — who has been feuding with Scott since the start of session — insisted that Scott's push for tax cuts was not dead for this session.
But he added that the steep cost of Scott's main tax cut — which could exceed $100 million a year — may doom it.
"The argument has to be made that that's the best way to spend a $100 million," Weatherford said. "It's not a cheap tax cut."
Lawmakers began the session knowing that the state's economy has begun to turn around and tax collections are picking up. That has allowed them to avoid deep cuts or tax hikes that they have used to balance budgets the last few years.
The Florida Legislature has until early May to pass a new budget that covers state spending from July 1, 2013 until June 2014. There are differences in the rival plans — like the House's push for a 6 percent tuition hike for universities — but they don't appear big enough to keep legislators ending their work on time.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart and Senate budget chief, insisted that legislators have not gone on a "spending spree." But they have found money for all sorts of hometown projects from ballet academies, historic courthouses, and river ferries.
Both sides have proposed to pump more than $1 billion into public schools — and to use a large amount of money for teacher salaries. The Senate budget would boost per-student funding by $372 while the House budget would increase it by $395.
In his budget, Scott asked legislators for $480 million to give every teacher a $2,500 pay raise. The Senate put in the same amount, but included a provision tying the raises to student performance instead of allowing the raises to be handed out to all teachers.
The House has included $676 million and "strongly encourages" that 50 percent of the raises be based on teacher performance.
While the House has a $1,400 pay raise for state workers, the Senate proposes a 3 percent pay raise for state employees and a boost beyond that for highway troopers.
Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout
- Budget, Tax & Economy
- State Budget & Tax