TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The House's top budget-writing committee advanced a $75.3 billion spending plan Wednesday in a lopsided vote that showed Democrats already divided about whether to support the Legislature's main responsibility.
Four of the 10 Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, including the ranking member, joined the 21-6 vote to move the spending bill forward. It marked the first time since 2007 that any Democrat on the committee has voted for the budget.
"We don't have chairmanships to hold over people's heads to make them do things," said House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale. "We let our members express themselves. And we're not that party that says that you have to vote this way or that way."
The votes give Republicans an opportunity to tout the budget as a bipartisan document as they move through the process --- much as they did last year, when Democratic opposition eventually broke down in the final votes on the spending plan. The full House still needs to vote on the proposed 2014-15 budget before negotiations begin with the Senate.
Helping out is the state's revenue surplus, which allowed budget writers to shower money on education and other politically popular items in an election year. Public school spending would increase by almost 3.1 percent per student, and the total amount of education funding would mark the highest on record.
The budget (PCB APC 14-09) would also provide services to about 1,260 Floridians seeking services from the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, clearing a waiting list of the patients with the most serious needs.
Democrats who voted against the budget bill tried to highlight the shortcomings in the proposal. They pointed out that the $6,988 in pre-student funding was still less than it was before the recession wrecked the state budget --- with a healthy portion of the increase coming from local taxes. And they got Republicans to concede that the spending plan knocks out just 6 percent of the total Agency for Persons with Disabilities waiting list.
"Education is not at historic levels," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "It's not keeping pace with growth. And, frankly, it's relying more on property tax. That should be an issue. ... We still are keeping so many wait lists, with so many people that are vulnerable out there on these wait lists."
They also blasted the proposal for continuing to leave out an expansion of Medicaid, which House Republicans have ruled out.
But other Democrats said they believed the issues they had with the budget could be resolved later in the process.
"I'm hoping that we will be able to address those also," said Rep. Hazelle Rogers, D-Lauderdale Lakes. "So I'm keeping hope alive this afternoon."
While stopping short of issuing a clear-cut threat, at least one Republican suggested that other Democrats should take a similar tack. Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, suggested that the chairmen of the House's budget subcommittees might have less motivation to work with lawmakers who vote against the plan.
"It's hard to work with people and negotiate with them about adding or fixing or changing things when they're already locked down in opposition," Baxley said. "What is the reason they would even work with you? Thankfully, most of them are fair-minded people, and I think will continue to try to."
Perhaps more significant than the squabbling between the parties, though, were the negotiations between the House and Senate set to begin after both chambers finish their versions of the spending plan. The Senate Appropriations Committee is set to vote Thursday on a plan totaling $74.9 billion.
House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, said the differences between the two budgets are small.
"I feel very confident that we'll get to a comfortable place relatively quickly," he said. "It doesn't seem insurmountable from my perspective."