Lawmakers need to bridge budget differences

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Lawmakers will begin debate Wednesday on two very different budget plans, with the House proposal about $4 billion lighter overall than the Senate version.

The bottom line differences are smaller --- the Senate budget for the year beginning July 1 officially weighs in at $83.2 billion, compared to $81.2 billion for the House --- but the Senate doesn't account for $2 billion in higher-education tuition.

After both chambers vote on their proposals --- probably on Thursday --- formal negotiating will begin, with legislative leaders first having to decide how much money to devote to each area of the budget before conference committees hammer out agreements on how to spend the funds in each pot.

If lawmakers want to leave Tallahassee by May 5, as scheduled, all the discussions have to be finished by May 2 to allow for a constitutionally required 72-hour "cooling off" period before a final vote is taken.

Here's a look at some of the high-profile issues lawmakers will face:

Public education

Some of the sharpest differences between the two budgets are in public education --- which includes divisions over teacher incentives, property taxes and a House plan to spur charter-school creation near academically struggling schools.

The Senate is far more generous in the main funding formula for elementary and secondary education, increasing the per-student spending by almost $210 a head --- about 2.91 percent. By contrast, the House would boost it by a shade over $19 per student, or about 0.27 percent.

The difference essentially boils down to whether lawmakers accept an increase of $535.1 million in local property tax revenues known as the "required local effort." The House says the rise in homeowners' property tax bills makes that a tax increase; the Senate says the increased funding is caused by the growth in property values, while the tax rate stays the same.

However, the House also plows money into two programs not included in the Senate budget. House budget-writers would spend $200 million on the controversial “Best and Brightest” bonus program for teachers, while the Senate would zero it out.

Another $200 million under the House plan would go toward "Schools of Hope," meant to encourage non-profit charter school operators with track records of high performance among low-income students to open campuses in areas where traditional public schools have received "D" or "F" grades on state reports cards for more than three consecutive years. The Senate hasn't created that program.

The two sides are also far apart on funding for higher education in general, and state universities in particular. The Senate would spend $5.1 billion on the state university system, compared to $4.6 billion from the House.

Economic incentives

For Gov. Rick Scott, the session's highest priority might be what the Legislature does in this area of the budget.

House lawmakers have repeatedly bucked Scott and approved legislation to eliminate Enterprise Florida, the state's business-recruitment agency. The House budget stays true to that, giving no money to Enterprise Florida and $25 million for Visit Florida, which promotes tourism to the state.

The Senate proposal is more in line with Scott's requests. The upper chamber would set aside more than $80 million for programs tied to Enterprise Florida and devote $76 million to Visit Florida.

Pay raises

Broad-based raises for state employees have been rare since the financial crisis, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has set an increase as one of his top priorities. In all, the Senate plan would boost pay for state workers by $219.7 million.

Most state employees would get an increase of $1,400 if they make $40,000 or less a year, while those who make more than $40,000 would get a $1,000 boost. The raise would kick in Oct. 1. Other employees, mostly in law enforcement and the judicial branch, would get specialized raises.

That's not the case in the House plan, which has specialized increases --- particularly for correctional officers, an area of concern in both budgets --- but not the broader-based raises offered by the Senate.

Health care

There are substantial gaps between the two chambers on how much to provide for hospitals and other health-care needs. Under the Senate budget proposal, the Agency for Health Care Administration --- which directs much of the Medicaid program --- would check in at $27.7 billion, while the House has set aside $26.4 billion.

Some of those differences could be an illusion. The Senate budget includes $607.8 million in money for hospital aid from the federal government that might not materialize. The House doesn't have that funding in the budget, saying it would be irresponsible to depend on it.

But there are substantive differences as well. Both chambers would reduce hospital Medicaid reimbursements, but the House's cuts would be much deeper than the Senate's.

Death penalty

The state's budget has become part of the battle over State Attorney Aramis Ayala, elected last year as the top prosecutor in Orange and Osceola counties, who recently announced she would not pursue the death penalty in capital cases.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have proposed a $1.3 million cut to Ayala's office. However, senators have worked out a compromise to assuage the concerns of some critics of the cut by restoring $569,277 and six positions to Ayala's budget, while still providing some additional funding for another circuit that Scott has ordered to handle death-penalty cases from Ayala's jurisdiction.