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Policy: Budgets & Deficits

Florida legislators reach deal on most spending items

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Associated Press,Senate,Florida,Budgets and Deficits,Spending

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Racing against the clock, Florida legislators have reached a deal on most of the spending that will be included in a new $75 billion state budget.

House and Senate budget negotiators worked the entire weekend and did not publicly agree to most spending items until a late-night session held at the Capitol right before midnight Sunday.

They agreed to pay raises for some state workers, but not for the majority of them. Legislators signed off on a proposal to boost spending on public school students, but still not enough to reach the levels in place right before the recession forced a wave of spending cuts.

There is also money in the budget to hire more child protective investigators, as well as money to help the state's beleaguered springs and to start work cleaning up and restoring Indian River Lagoon. Excess water and pollution levels rose in the water body last year after the Army Corps of Engineers diverted water away from Lake Okeechobee during rainy season.

"I feel like it's a really strong budget I feel we can be proud of," said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart and the Senate budget chief.

Left undone: School and college construction projects and details directing the agencies how to spend the money. The budget needs to be on the desk of legislators by Tuesday in order to end the session on time. Florida law requires a 72-hour "cooling off" period before a final vote is taken on the budget.

Florida legislators entered their annual session with a projected $1.2 billion surplus due to the state's recovering economy. The Republican-controlled Legislature has already passed a nearly $400 million rollback in annual auto registration fees that was a top priority of Gov. Rick Scott.

Lawmakers plan to pass an additional $100 million in tax cuts this coming week although final agreement has not been reached on that package. It would appear likely that legislators will at least endorse a three-day back-to-school sales tax holiday for shoppers.

The budget surplus emboldened both Republicans and Democrats to seek money for dozens of hometown projects. Negotiators, for example, agreed to set aside $2 million for a 1,000-foot Miami observation tower called SkyRise Miami being built by a private developer. The state money, however, will be contingent on documentation that the project will generate $400 million in private investment.

The Florida Senate agreed to back off a contentious proposal to split the Florida A&M University and Florida State University engineering college. Instead, the state panel that oversees the university system will spend $500,000 on a study to look at whether the split is feasible.

Legislators have also agreed to give a 5 percent pay raise to state law-enforcement officers including highway patrol troopers and to boost the pay of judicial employees. But rank-and-file state workers will not be getting an across-the-board pay raise.

Legislators will also keep health insurance premiums for state workers at current levels.

There are nearly 200,000 people enrolled in the state health insurance program, but nearly 30,000 of them, including top officials in state agencies, legislative staff, as well as the governor and members of the Cabinet like Attorney General Pam Bondi, pay the lowest possible rate.

The final budget deal would keep that rate the same: $8.34 a month in premiums for individual coverage and $30 for family coverage. Scott wanted all state workers to pay $50 a month for individual coverage and $180 a month for family coverage.

State legislators in the last two years have started paying the higher rate.

The move to lock in low insurance rates for top-ranked employees comes even as the Legislature continues to reject expanding Medicaid coverage to cover more low-income Floridians.

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