Lawmakers secure budget deal
By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- Lawmakers reached an agreement Tuesday on a $49-billion budget that holds the line on school spending while preserving a controversial corporate tax break.
The deal, announced the same day the state GOP began airing TV ads touting Gov. Jeb Bush's record on education spending, means the state's public schools will barely keep pace with inflation and student growth.
While a budget deal was reached, lawmakers failed to settle differences over the duties of the state's new chief financial officer.
And differences remain over portions of a massive rewrite of the state education code, which led to the collapse of a special session earlier this month.
Still, Bush was encouraged enough by the budget deal to schedule a two-week special session beginning Monday.
Bush hopes the Republican Legislature will accomplish something during its special session that it failed to do during its regular 60-day session last month: adopt a budget, update education laws and the chief financial officer's duties.
Bush added several smaller issues, including a measure to help the state track the use of powerful narcotic drugs such as Oxycontin.
"At the completion of this next legislative session I am confident that we will have finished the important work that remains to be done on behalf of the citizens of Florida," Bush said in a statement.
The biggest issue by far is the budget, which must be adopted by June 30. With education dominating the governor's bid for a second term, spending on public schools has become a major focus of budget negotiations.
House and Senate leaders Tuesday agreed to increase education spending by 6 percent as Bush recommended in his original budget proposal in January. To get there, the Senate trimmed about $80-million while the House agreed to a $160-million increase, said Senate President John McKay.
The increase, however, all but disappears when inflation and student growth are considered.
Democrats have blasted Bush for his education spending plan, which is touted in the GOP TV ads. "It's not surprising that they (House and Senate Republicans) would agree on that level because the Bush campaign has already put it in their ads," said Democratic Party spokesman Ryan Banfill.
The budget deal also preserves a corporate tax break worth some $262-million, six months after lawmakers cut about $1-billion from the budget because of the economic downturn. Meanwhile, a popular sales tax holiday was eliminated.
McKay, R-Bradenton, said he hasn't decided whether he will vote for the tax break, but historically he hasn't supported it. "I think that will be an interesting debate," McKay said.
House Minority Leader Lois Frankel said the Legislature's Republican leadership is watching out for its campaigns contributors.
"Someone who is going to get a $10 break on a shopping spree is not going to give as much as a corporation that gets a $200-million tax break," said Frankel, D-West Palm Beach.
Rep. Carlos Lacasa, a Miami Republican and chief budget negotiator for the House, said the House has agreed to spend what the Senate wanted for social services, about $113-million more than the House originally wanted.
Lawmakers agreed for the second year in a row to divert money from land preservation to other uses, with preference given to environmental projects.
House Speaker Tom Feeney said through a spokeswoman that he was "excited to get back to Tallahassee to continue to do the people's work."
But of the three major issues only one -- the budget -- is secured with a firm deal. The chief financial officer issue is unresolved, and the House education chairman said Tuesday he still has concerns about a controversial religious freedoms section of the education bill.
That issue was enough to derail a four-day special session earlier this month to adopt a 1,800-page update of the state's education laws. Bush has suggested a compromise in which lawmakers take out language outlining students' religious freedoms and give administrators a pamphlet instead.
-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
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