House okays budget; will Senate?
By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida House approved its $49-billion budget Thursday, restoring some of the cuts made last year before sending it to the Senate for a vote today.
The two chambers are remarkably close in their spending plans, a result of intense negotiations between Gov. Jeb Bush and legislative leaders in the days before Bush called the current special session.
But everything could change if the Senate fails this morning to approve a $262-million corporate tax break, the cornerstone of the fragile budget deal Bush worked out.
At last count, Republicans claimed to have exactly the 21 votes required to pass a bill in the Senate. Senators briefly discussed the issue Thursday but left a final vote until today.
Asked if he had 21 "solid" votes for it, Senate Majority Leader Jim King, R-Jacksonville, asked: "What's solid in politics?"
Democrats in both chambers oppose the tax cut.
"How do you go home and sleep when all you do is help corporations?" House Democratic Leader Lois Frankel asked Republicans.
Past tax cuts are partly to blame for one element of the budget some lawmakers find troubling: a dependence on one-time sources of money to pay for services that are needed year after year.
The House budget plan, approved 78-39, uses a little more than $1-billion in such money to pay for operations, while the Senate is depending on about $1.3-billion.
And that has King, who is expected to be Senate president next year, worried.
"You can make the argument that wouldn't it be nice if we had that money back," King said, referring to a series of tax cuts approved in recent years. The problem with using those one-time windfalls of money for everyday services is that the amount fluctuates every year, King said.
"Then you either have to make cuts or find new revenue. . . . That's a heck of a hand to be dealt. I don't want to be a Senate president who started off raising taxes," King said.
Lawmakers still must find a way to pay for the additional court costs, beginning the year after next, which are estimated to cost several hundred million dollars -- plus the new high-speed train voters approved.
Rep. Carlos Lacasa, the House budget chairman, acknowledged that next year's budget depends heavily on money that might not be there the year after.
"I'm glad I'm not going to be chairman (next year)," joked Lacasa, R-Miami. "(But) we're counting on the economy coming back. Things are looking better than they did last year." That's when lawmakers cut about $1-billion from the budget, largely from education and social services, after economists predicted a dramatic drop in state revenues due to the economic slump and the effects of the Sept. 11 attacks.
But things didn't turn out to be that bad, and a significant portion of the increases in the House and Senate spending plans touted by lawmakers actually are restorations of those cuts.
"The criminal justice budget is really defined by what it restores," said Rep. Randy Ball, the Mims Republican who handles that part of the budget for the House.
To differing degrees, both the House and Senate restore cuts lawmakers made last year to the offices of state attorneys and public defenders, substance abuse treatment for inmates and probationers and juvenile probation officers. Both chambers restore some of the cuts made to family services in the Juvenile Justice Department.
Lawmakers cut particularly deep in those areas.
The House spending plan currently pays for nine new circuit judges, while the Senate plan funds 18. Both plans earmarked several million dollars for new voting equipment and voter education.
Both chambers have stuck to the deal they made regarding education: a 6 percent increase in basic schools funding (about 3.5 percent after last year's cuts are factored in) plus additional money for mentoring programs and a combination of state and federal grant money for reading programs.
"It's an increase before the (budget) cuts; it's an increase after the cuts," said Rep. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, who handles schools funding for the House.
The two chambers are scheduled to meet in a joint House and Senate negotiating committee this weekend to iron out differences in their spending plans.
-- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
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