Budget deal sealed ahead of Monday vote

By Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida legislative leaders put the finishing touches Friday on a package of budget-related bills, as the new spending plan weighing in at roughly $83 billion was released to lawmakers and the public.

The network of interlocking deals came too late to allow the legislative session to end Friday, as scheduled. Because of a 72-hour "cooling off" period required by the state Constitution, the House and Senate will not be able to vote to approve the spending measure before 2:43 p.m. Monday.

"It's just been a very long journey," House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, said Friday afternoon at a final negotiation session with Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

The two sides had already agreed on the spending plan in a meeting Thursday. The concluded work Friday on a series of bills tied to the budget.

The budget, which provides funding for state functions for the year beginning July 1, would provide a modest increase for the main formula for school funding, give state employees their first raise since 2013 and slash Medicaid payments to hospitals by $521 million.

Some of those health-care cuts could later be filled in by spending from a federal program still being negotiated between Gov. Rick Scott and the Trump administration.

The budget will also, notably, not include economic-development incentive money sought by Scott and will slash tourism-marketing funds. The governor continued a tour of the state Friday aimed at pressuring lawmakers to cave on the issues.

Despite the governor's broadsides, and some criticism from outside groups, legislative leaders said they were pleased with the final plan.

"I think that the budget is a good budget that we can be proud of, that has a commitment to the issues that we care about today," Negron said.

The budget shows a bottom-line total of $82.4 billion. But that figure does not include some education and state-employee costs that are tucked in related bills and would bring the total to nearly $83 billion.

Education groups, in particular, were already beginning to say Friday that the plan was inadequate. The Association of Florida Colleges knocked a $30.2 million cut to the Florida College System.

"These reductions will have a lasting impact on local communities and students, and could take years to restore," Michael Brawer, the association's CEO, said in a lengthy statement issued Friday. "Some colleges report that they will be less able to respond to local and regional needs with affordable workforce programs. Others indicate they will have to reduce courses and offer hundreds of fewer sections, delivered by trimmed down faculty staffing. This will create crowded classrooms, and less flexibility for access to courses by working adults."

Public school districts have also opened fire, questioning a provision that would increase the main school funding formula, the Florida Education Finance Program, by just $24 per student.

"Considering the overall economic strength of our state, it is alarming that the basic funding needs of Florida public school students could go unaddressed," said Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas, president of the superintendents' statewide association.

But Corcoran said that didn't account for more than $400 million that would be funneled to charter schools and teacher bonuses under a separate bill.

"The reason we did it outside the FEFP is because we want those dollars going to the classroom," Corcoran said.

Those funds, though, will not go to schools across the board, instead being targeted at certain charter schools or teachers who qualify for the bonuses.

Lawmakers were expected late Friday to vote to extend the session through Monday to allow themselves time to approve the budget before going home.

News Service of Florida