Negotiators nail down $83 billion state budget

Local lawmakers optimistic as end of Legislative session nears

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Behind schedule and late in the evening, House and Senate negotiators agreed Thursday to an $83 billion spending plan for the year that begins July 1, setting up a delayed end to the legislative session.

The agreement provides for a modest increase in the main state formula for funding public education, cuts payments to hospitals by more than $500 million, and provides a raise to state employees for the first time since 2013.

It also closes out an arduous, weeks-long negotiation between the two chambers that has already pushed them into overtime -- a final vote on the spending plan will come Monday, three days after the annual legislative session was supposed to end.

The state Constitution requires a 72-hour "cooling off" period before any agreement between the House and Senate can be approved.

"The budget is closed. ... No more. No more. The budget is closed," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

The final piece of the massive puzzle fell into place Thursday night, when lawmakers agreed on how to divide $521.1 million in Medicaid cuts to hospitals. An earlier draft of the spending cuts had proved unacceptable to the Senate.

The second draft of the cuts rejiggered the final reductions for many hospitals. The largest beneficiary appeared to be Orlando Health, which received $1 million more under the second House proposal than under the first. Meanwhile, the cut for Florida Hospital in Orange County grew by $2.6 million, while the reduction for Baptist Hospital of Miami increased by almost $1.2 million.

Along with the hospital agreement, the chambers closed out a slew of other spending issues Thursday.

The two sides formalized an agreement on pay increases. Most state employees who earn $40,000 or less will get a $1,400 salary increase; those making more will get an extra $1,000 a year. Law enforcement and some high-ranking state officials, like Supreme Court justices, will receive more.

There are still some budget-related bills to hammer out, though those do not face the same 72-hour “cooling off” period as the main spending plan. The most contentious of those deal with education proposals from the House meant to encourage charter schools to set up near academically struggling traditional public schools and an expansion of the state's "Best and Brightest" teacher bonus program.

Those bills seem to buck a trend in recent legislative sessions of keeping policy decisions out of so-called "conforming bills," which are tied to the budget and are essentially must-pass legislation. Using those bills for significant changes led to a meltdown in the 2011 session.

Latvala, one of the senators who rebelled six years ago, made it clear Thursday he was not pleased with the change.

"Is that my preference to do that? No," he said. "It's not my preference to do that. But I'm a member of the Senate, and we have to try to accommodate the wishes of the rest of the Senate sometimes."

With lawmakers facing heightened questions about the transparency of the budget process this year, particularly after House Speaker Richard Corcoran's pledge to clean up the way the House operates, lawmakers said there would be a public hearing on whatever emerges on education.

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, suggested that hearing could come Friday, or perhaps Monday.

"We want to give the public ample opportunity to review them," Trujillo said. "We're not going to drop them, you know, 30 minutes before the meeting."

And there remain questions about whether Gov. Rick Scott might veto the budget, as he has begun to hint he might do. Many of Scott's priorities, including spending on economic development and an increase for tourism marketing, were discarded by the House-Senate agreement.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, refused to answer directly Wednesday when asked whether he believed Scott would nix the entire spending plan, a rare move. Trujillo was also somewhat evasive when asked about the possibility Thursday.

"I would say it would be very difficult to veto the entire budget," he said.

Local lawmakers optimistic as end of Legislative session nears

Local lawmakers are involved in wrapping up the annual legislative session.

Lawmakers in the Northeast Florida delegation, by and large, said they feel good about finishing the session, even if they haven't quite wrapped everything up yet.

"(At) times where we were far apart we now have come a lot closer together. We're making big strides for the state of Florida," Sen. Travis Hutson said. 

Rep. Kimberly Daniels is one of several new lawmakers from Northeast Florida.

"It's very exciting to be part of our team, the Duval delegation. We got a lot of things done (as far as) appropriations and legislation. This is the end and we're kind of waiting for some closure of some things. But I think we did pretty good," Daniels said. "It was very, kind of, nice having my first bill to not just be heard by three committees, but to go to the floor and get passed in the House and in the Senate, which is a bill to put prayer back in school. But I'm mostly proud of the appropriations that I believe are going to come to our community."

The delegation's leader gave them praise and they gave each other verbal high fives, seemingly relieved they're almost done with the work across the state.

"I feel very good as a freshman representative of first time in the Legislature. I think we accomplished a lot and I've learned a lot, and I'm ready to go for next session," Rep. Cord Byrd said. "(We're) just waiting to finalize the budget so we can let the good people of Florida know what their legislators are doing for them."

Members of the Duval delegation, and really each of the north Florida House and Senate members, said they have accomplished many of their goals for 2017.

"And be proud of the Duval delegation by the way. We have some new members," Rep. Jay Fant said. "They are as good new members as I've seen in this chamber over the last week. It's busy. It's slow at the same time, if that's possible, so right now we're doing a little bit of waiting for bills from the Senate. If we get those knocked out tomorrow (and) over the weekend and then (we can) finish them Monday.”

"The negotiations are really at the point where it's between the presiding officer," said Rep. Jason Fischer, of Jacksonville. "But sitting on the education committee, I got to go through a lot of that process and see how investing that much money I think it's going to help kids in the state of Florida."

But the session may be remembered for the conflicts between Scott and the House, with the Senate somewhere in between, which left some individual lawmakers, including Jacksonville’s Fant, choosing sides.

"I have departed from leadership on Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. I support those programs. I've been very aggressive on workers comp to try and make that a more business friendly work friendly bill.  We're still working on both of those things. And we'll just have to wait and see how the Senate comes back from the appropriations conference and how it lines up and what the budget looks like and what the governor does," Fant said. 

News4Jax spoke Thursday with Corcoran, who said, as did many Senate members, that they were more concerned with doing things right with the budget than getting things done in a hurry.

The House floor was empty after 3 p.m. Thursday. But the Senate worked well past dinnertime to continue wrapping things up. 


The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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