TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Senate on Wednesday charged ahead with a nearly $71 billion budget, despite complaints from university students, hospital lobbyists and even some Republicans in the House about some of the decisions contained in the spending plan.
The Senate Budget Committee voted unanimously for the budget proposal after a marathon all-day session that focused primarily on the deep cuts the budget has in store for the state’s 11 public universities. The legislation also cuts spending on hospitals, limits emergency room visits for poor patients, and eliminates thousands of state worker jobs.
“It’s a tough budget,” said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. “It was a tough budget last year and it’s even tougher this year.”
Some senators wound up engaging in a back-and-forth with students from the University of South Florida, who were angered at what they saw as cuts that targeted their school because of an ongoing feud over the fate of a branch campus in Lakeland. Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales and Senate budget chief, has been pushing hard to turn loose the branch and transform it into the state’s newest stand-alone university.
The state panel that oversees the state university system voted last year for guidelines the branch campus must meet to win its independence but the Senate has a stand-alone bill that would mandate the creation of Florida Polytechnic University.
“In my view of the world, this is a divorce that needs to happen,” Alexander said.
The proposed Senate budget cuts state funding for all universities by $400 million, but it hits some schools, including USF, harder based on the size of existing budget reserves. Alexander and other top Republicans contended that this would be a one-year reduction in funding that would enable the Senate to avoid deeper cuts in order parts of the budget.
There were terse moments between Tampa Bay senators and other Republicans over the USF budget cuts with Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, accusing some of his fellow Republicans of balancing the budget on the backs of students.
Senators did make one key change late in the day in an effort to short-circuit some of the criticism. They removed a provision from a bill to freeze $25 million in money for USF until university administrators took the legal steps to create Florida Polytechnic.
But it’s clear that the haggling over money for state universities could become a major sticking point in the remaining weeks of the session. Lawmakers have until early March to pass a new budget that will cover state spending from July 2012 to June 2013.
The House has already passed its proposed 2012 budget and does not include anywhere near the same level of cuts for state universities.
Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel and the next House speaker, said he would not even consider a bill creating a 12th state university at a time when deep cuts are being proposed for USF.
“The House feels very strongly that universities should be treated equally,” Weatherford said. “We shouldn’t single any one of them out and treat them differently when it comes to funding. We’re going to hold on very strong to that position.”
The House and Senate budgets differ in other key ways, including overall amounts.
The House budget (HB 5001) is about $1.6 billion less because the Senate wants budget control over two local expressway authorities. The Senate budget (SB 7050) which totals nearly $70.8 billion boosts funding for road-building higher while also putting in place cuts for substance abuse programs.
The House mandates an eight percent tuition hike for college students and at least that much for university students. The Senate only has a three percent increase for students who attend the state’s 28 colleges. The Senate budget, however, does allow universities to raise tuition up to 15 percent as permitted under current law.
Both the House and Senate pour more than $1 billion in extra state funding for public schools, but the Senate is also pushing a proposal to extend school an hour of day for low-performing schools to boost time spent on reading.
Gov. Rick Scott warned earlier this year he would not support a budget unless it included extra money for public schools. But while lawmakers went along with that request they have all but rejected Scott’s proposal to overhaul the way that public hospitals are paid.
The Senate on Wednesday also moved to block a proposal by the Scott administration to close down a Panhandle prison in a rural county east of Tallahassee. The House had already voted to keep open the prison in Jefferson County after residents there said the abrupt closing of their largest employer would devastate the local economy.
Associated Press Writer Bill Kaczor contributed to this report
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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.