TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The House scaled back a proposed pay raise for state employees and changed the method for boosting the salaries of teachers Thursday as the chamber prepared for a vote on its spending plan for the budget year that starts July 1.
The votes -- which both fell nearly or entirely along party lines -- previewed what could be a difficult path for the budget plan (HB 5001) in the House, even after a key concession caused the Democratic caucus to drop its formal opposition to the bill.
The most hotly-contested amendment essentially broke up a $1,400 across-the-board pay raise for state workers into two pieces: A $1,000 salary increase and a $400, performance-based bonus.
The maneuver outraged Democrats and some Republicans, who openly questioned why Republican leaders waited until the budget was on the floor to change directions.
"What this amendment does is take away a commitment, a promise we made early on that we were going to help our state workers," said Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.
Most of the GOP House members, though, highlighted the fact that the budget reversed six years in which state employees didn't see their salaries increase.
"This is a joyous time," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. "We're able to give our valued employees a raise."
And they pointed out that workers who earn the bonus would still earn roughly the same amount of money.
But several Democrats and Fasano were openly suspicious that the money would instead be used to pay for an alternative to Medicaid expansion that House leaders rolled out Thursday.
That plan prompted Democrats, who were prepared to vote against the bill if no health-care expansion was proposed, to drop a caucus position formally opposing the budget.
On the floor, Republican leaders were not willing to explicitly rule out the money being used for the health-care plan when opponents asked where the money would go.
"Clearly this amendment frees up additional [general revenue] for further policy initiatives or reserve policy," said House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.
Fasano and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, crossed the aisle to vote with Democrats as the amendment passed, 69-45.
Another amendment requiring all teacher pay raises be based entirely on merit, instead of having half the raises decided on performance, passed on a party-line, 73-43 vote.
The House set aside $676 million for spending that includes pay raises, although Republicans say the Legislature can't force local school boards to spend the money there. Rep. Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who chairs the committee overseeing education spending, said lawmakers' intent was clear.
"I would hope, after so much conversation from the beginning of session and through session about the salary increases, that the school districts ... would utilize it only for the salary increase portion," Fresen said.
After the GOP concession on health care, it wasn't clear what the final vote Friday on the budget itself will look like, but it still seemed unlikely to meet the unanimous support that the Senate provided Wednesday for its budget blueprint.
Lawmakers do not expect to start working on hammering out a final deal between the House and the Senate until next week.
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