TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Racing against the clock, Florida legislators reached a deal Monday on a roughly $75 billion state budget that boosts spending on schools, child welfare and the cleanup of damaged water bodies across the state.
The budget deal, which came after several days of haggling and behind-the-scenes negotiations, clears the way for the Florida Legislature to end its session on time this Friday.
The election year budget comes with no tuition hikes for students, but it does rely on a small increase in property taxes in order to boost public school spending by roughly 2.6 percent. Legislators have also set aside enough money to cut taxes by $500 million, most of which will come in the form of a rollback in annual auto registration fees charged to motorists.
"I think it's a balanced budget that addresses a lot of the needs in Florida," said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who is Senate budget chief.
After years when legislators were forced to slice programs — and even raise taxes — Florida's slowly recovering economy has given state legislators a $1.2 billion surplus to use.
That gave the Legislature enough money to increase the number of child protective investigators as well as money to help the state's beleaguered springs and roughly $170 million to start work cleaning up and restoring Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee River.
Last year, water levels in Lake Okeechobee rose to dangerous levels during a very rainy wet season, prompting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the dike and locks around the 730-square-mile lake, to release large amounts of fresh water. The excess water and the pollution it carried were blamed for steep declines in the health of both the lagoon and the river.
"Job well done by the Legislature, help is on the way," said Negron, whose Senate district includes part of Indian River Lagoon.
House budget chief Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, defended the small property tax increase included in the budget because it would help increase overall school spending. The Legislature did not raise the tax rate, but legislators are instead relying on a rise in property values.
"Folks in Florida want a quality education system," McKeel said. "They know that should be the number one priority of the Legislature."
The budget surplus emboldened both Republicans and Democrats to seek money for dozens of hometown projects. Negotiators meeting over the weekend agreed to set aside $2 million for a 1,000-foot Miami observation tower called SkyRise Miami being built by a private developer. The state money, however, will be contingent on documentation that the project will generate $400 million in private investment.
The Florida Senate agreed to back off a contentious proposal to split the Florida A&M University and Florida State University engineering college. Instead, the state panel that oversees the university system will spend $500,000 on a study to look at whether the split is feasible.
Legislators have also agreed to give a 5 percent pay raise to state law-enforcement officers including highway patrol troopers and to boost the pay of judicial employees. But rank-and-file state workers will not be getting an across-the-board pay raise.
Legislators will also keep health insurance premiums for state workers at current levels.
There are nearly 200,000 people enrolled in the state health insurance program, but nearly 30,000 of them, including top officials in state agencies, legislative staff, as well as the governor and members of the Cabinet like Attorney General Pam Bondi, pay the lowest possible rate.
The final budget deal would keep that rate the same: $8.34 a month in premiums for individual coverage and $30 for family coverage. Scott wanted all state workers to pay $50 a month for individual coverage and $180 a month for family coverage.
State legislators in the last two years have started paying the higher rate.
The move to lock in low insurance rates for top-ranked employees comes even as the Legislature continues to reject expanding Medicaid coverage to cover more low-income Floridians.
The Legislature is expected to vote on the budget this Friday. Legislators were finalizing the final wording of the budget on Monday night.
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