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In final hours, House memberes spar over budget

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The long-delayed end of the 2015 legislative process drew into view Thursday, as lawmakers prepared to pass a budget for the year that begins July 1 and leave Tallahassee after a nearly three-week special session.

In the House, members sparred over the spending plan ahead of a final vote Friday. While a 72-hour "cooling off" period prevented them from actually approving the budget until Friday evening, the chamber went ahead and finished off debate over the $78.7 billion plan.

 Republicans and some Democrats focused on the virtues of the proposal: record public funding of education in raw dollars, a patch for the loss of $1.2 billion in federal funding for hospitals and other health care providers, and environmental spending that the GOP says will meet the requirements of a voter-approved constitutional amendment aimed at land and water conservation.

 "If you vote no, you are snubbing your constituents on these helpful, useful programs," said House Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa.

 But Democrats who planned to oppose the bill said it was not enough, noting that education funding would not set a record in terms of per-student spending, that the state would not have to fill the health-care hole if it approved Medicaid expansion, and that too few of the dollars spent for conservation actually went to buying environmentally important lands.

 "The budget doesn't reflect Floridians' priorities as much as it reflects short-sighted and narrow-minded thinking and planning," said House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach.

 Others blasted how the budget deal was reached, pointing in particular to a late-night meeting Monday where legislative leaders doled out more than $300 million in projects in a pair of proposals that emerged at the last minute.

 "By the very definition of the word, this process has not been transparent at this point," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach. "And to call it 'historically transparent' is not only untrue, but I believe it demonstrates an assault on the very English language."

 Even some supporters of the spending plan acknowledged that changes in the budget process might be needed. Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he was also surprised at some of the items that got stuck into the final agreement during the Monday night meeting.

 "There were also some things that I thought were resolved (during earlier meetings), and they got kind of re-opened because there was additional money spent," said Lee, who presided over the Monday meeting.

 But the issues and acrimony that marked the regular spring legislative session --- during which lawmakers failed to pass a budget on time for the first time in five years --- seemed to linger. Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, defended the House's decision to leave the regular session three days early, even though the move was later found unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court.

 "For those who relish repeating that a procedural decision of this Florida House was unconstitutional, I would say that the greater constitutional obligation is producing a good and thoughtful balanced budget, and that the action of the Florida House on April 28 was the right decision to create the respectful environment that has allowed us to fulfill our essential constitutional obligation by passing this good balanced budget," Wood said.

 Even if both the House and Senate approve the budget Friday, as expected, they will have only three months before returning to the Capitol for committee meetings and the first stages of pulling together a new spending plan. There will be new challenges with the Low Income Pool, the health-care funding program that the federal government reduced from $2.2 billion in the current budget year to $1 billion for the upcoming year. That total will fall again to $600 million the following year.

 House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, suggested that his chamber might not be as eager next year to use state funds to help make up the difference.

 "I think you've got to start phasing that out," Crisafulli said. "You may have something next year that comes about that we have to look at from the standpoint of a small infusion, but ultimately, I believe that the hospitals now have kind of seen what the future holds for them. And I think it's important for them to recognize that they're going to have to restructure their business model and know that Washington isn't going to be there for them anymore, and the taxpayers of Florida aren't necessarily excited about being there for them."

 But Senate President Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican and hospital executive, said Thursday that lawmakers should be prepared during the 2016 session to consider using more money to replace lost funding from the federal government. Lee was even blunter when asked whether the state would have to continue picking up the slack.

 "I don't see any alternative at this point," he said.