Florida Legislature Passes $74.5 Billion Budget

The budget includes a big boost for schools.

Flush with cash for the first time in seven years, Florida lawmakers ended their session Friday by passing a $74.5 billion budget that includes a big boost for schools.

Only 11 legislators — all of them Democrats in the Florida House — voted against the spending plan that now heads to Gov. Rick Scott.

Buoyed by a rise in tax collections, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature was able to craft a budget that included pay raises for state workers, more money for health care programs and Everglades restoration.

"Our budget is not about spreadsheets and numbers, it's about values and priorities," said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart and Senate budget chief.

Despite a more than 6 percent increase in spending, House Speaker Will Weatherford insisted the final budget was fiscally conservative. But he and other legislators stressed that the budget includes a more than $1 billion increase for public schools.

A big portion of that increase is being given to school districts to increase teacher salaries. That was a top priority of Scott, even though the final measure was not the across-the-board boost that the governor initially recommended.

The budget does include federal funding tied to the Affordable Care Act that increases payments to primary care doctors who treat Medicaid patients. But House Republicans remained steadfast all the way to the end in their opposition to accept federal aid to expand the state's health care safety net.

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Other highlights of the budget include a 3 percent tuition hike for college and university students. Scott has remained steadfastly opposed to tuition hikes and could veto the hikes.

Legislators also agreed to hand out the first across-the-board pay raise to state workers in seven years.

The increases will go to more than 160,000 people who work at state agencies and 12 public universities. Those who earn $40,000 or less will receive a $1,400 raise, while those who currently earn more than that will get a $1,000 raise.

Roughly 35 percent of all state workers will be eligible for a $600 performance bonus.

The extra money made a difference in the closing moments of the session.

Democrats effusively praised Republicans for many of the spending decisions they had made this year even though the GOP majority refused to accept federal money to expand Medicaid.

"We didn't get everything we wanted, like more money for health care, but we're real happy anyways," said Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton.

Many legislators should be happy because they were able to spend millions on hometown projects that ranged from a cross-state multi-use trail to lighthouse renovations.

Scott has already warned that he expects legislators to justify many of the items that they placed in the spending plan in the session's waning moments. He could use his line-item veto to eliminate any projects he doesn't like.

But Negron defended the practice saying that lawmakers had a right to advocate on behalf of their communities.

"It was requested by us and we're the ones that went out and knocked on doors," Negron said.

Still there was some residual bitterness over the health care insurance stalemate that has dominated the session.

Several Democrats said they could not vote for what they called a "good" budget because Republicans had opted against helping out roughly 1 million low-income Floridians who are struggling.

"The budget is not plugged into the realities of what is happening outside this chamber," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "I'm sorry not many of you are listening, but I'm not surprised."

Associated Press writer James Rosica contributed to this story.

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