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State House Approves $69.2 Billion Budget That Adds $1.1 Billion to Schools

GARY FINEOUT, Associated Press
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida House on Thursday voted along partisan lines in favor of a bare-bones $69.2 billion budget for the coming year.

The 79-38 vote came after a contentious partisan debate in which Republicans called the budget responsible because it was balanced without tax increases. Democrats lambasted the majority party for pushing through a budget that cuts spending on health care and higher education.

State lawmakers entered their annual session knowing they were confronted with a more than $1 billion budget gap because tax revenues are growing, but not fast enough to deal with increasing expenses in Medicaid and growing public school enrollments.

Republicans said they had no choice but to cut some parts of the budget in order to deal with the shortfall, while also making sure they had set aside more than $1 billion in reserves.

“It is a direct reflection of our actual circumstances, not our delusional interests,” said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.

Democrats, however, ticked off a long list of some of the cuts included in the budget, including a tuition hike for college students; cuts in benefits provided to foster children; higher standards for those seeking the state’s popular Bright Futures scholarships; and the elimination of thousands of state jobs.

“Florida may be a great place to visit, but if you are the middle class it stinks to live here right now,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach.

Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, said the budget was an “assault” on minorities because it cut money for minority health programs and private historic black colleges in the state.

The firefight over a cut in benefits for foster children prompted a sharp exchange. Democrats criticized the provision because it will cut off benefits at 21 years old instead of 23 years as it now. They said foster children deserved the help since they were most likely had suffered from child abuse before they were placed in a foster home.

“I don’t like these disparaging comments that these children are victims,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. “They are not a victim, they are Americans.”

The Thursday vote sets the stage for negotiations during the final month of the annual session.

The Senate is moving slower on its budget proposal for 2012, but Senate President Mike Haridopolos has said he expects his chamber to wrap its budget by next week.

Still, crucial differences are emerging between the two chambers. The House, for example, has moved to block the closing of two prisons targeted by the administration of Gov. Rick Scott, including one in a rural Panhandle county.

Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring and House budget chief, insisted that this was not simply a bargaining position with the Senate. She said the decision to close the Jefferson County prison had been sprung on the community with little notice.

The House and Senate have also diverged on the type of cuts in health care services they are suggesting. House members are already cautioning that

The Senate has also put a contentious measure in one of its budget bills to allow a branch campus of the University of South Florida in Lakeland to become the state’s 12th public university. House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, would not say if the House would go along with the move but admitted it was a “parochial” decision.

Gov. Rick Scott, while attending the Florida State Fair in Tampa, told reporters that he was willing to look at it, but stopped short of endorsing it.

Heading into a crucial election year, both the House and Senate have gone along with Scott’s push to pump more money into education. The House would provide about $1.1 billion more for public schools, while the Senate has close to $1.2 billion in additional money. The extra money, however, would not restore the full amount that lawmakers cut from schools a year ago.

Scott also proposed keeping tuition rates flat in the coming year, but the House has recommended an 8 percent hike. That hike can go up to 15 percent under a law that lets universities charge above the rate legislators set each year. The Senate has a zero tuition hike for state universities, but they have recommended a three percent hike for students at one of the state’s 28 colleges.

The House budget eliminates thousands of state jobs. While many of the positions are vacant, the House is still calling for the closing of driver license offices, a reduction in the number of probation officers, and even the elimination of a handful of investigators who handle arson and consumer fraud cases.

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Associated Press writers Kelli Kennedy and Tamara Lush contributed to this story.

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Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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