Lawmakers approve budget, finish session

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The House and Senate overwhelmingly approved a $74.5 billion budget Friday evening, bringing the curtain down on the 2013 legislative session.

The spending plan for the year that begins July 1 -- the one thing lawmakers are constitutionally required to do -- gives raises to teachers and state employees, the latter for the first time in six years; repays $300 million that lawmakers had drained from university reserves last year in an effort to close a budget gap; and sets aside money for projects large and small, including $70 million to help restore the Everglades.

Perhaps as significantly, the plan was passed a few minutes before 7 p.m. Friday, marking a departure from the late and sometimes bitter denouements to the sessions of recent years.

"The era of acrimony between the House and the Senate is over," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, moments after the session ended.

In the House, lawmakers voted 106-11 to approve the budget, with a handful of Democrats and Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, voting against the package. Most members of the minority party joined Republicans in approving the deal. The vote was unanimous in the Senate.

The measure still needs to be signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, who will have the opportunity to nix individual projects and proposals with his veto pen.

"I'll be going line-by-line, making sure that we don't waste any dollars," Scott said after the session.

The era of good feelings was helped along by modest growth in state revenues as the budget finally began to emerge from the shadows of the Great Recession.

"There's light at the end of the tunnel, and it's not another train," said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach.

The extra money allowed the Legislature to both allow spending to grow and say that they were being careful guardians of taxpayer money.

"And this year in addition to taking care of the people who you're supposed to take care of, you've also responsibly balanced your budget by putting $2.6 billion in reserves, and responsibly funding one of our most important missions coming up here, and that is education, by putting $1.8 billion new into your entire education system," said House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.

It was not a universally shared sentiment. Democratic leaders in the House hammered Republicans for not including as part of the budget any program to use federal funds to provide health-care for low-income Floridians. While Scott and the Senate backed doing so, House Republican leaders balked and said that the federal government was an unreliable partner.

House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, acknowledged that lawmakers should not proverbially let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

"But we do have an opportunity to be great, and we're settling for good," Thurston said.

Republicans, who also claimed victories on an overhaul of the state's education system, bills dealing with ethics and elections reforms and measures revamping campaign-finance laws, didn't let the criticism get to them.

"I can go home and sleep well tonight," Gaetz said. "When I go back to northwest Florida, I'm going back proud of our accomplishments."

Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.