No sales tax holiday
By ALISA ULFERTS and ANITA KUMAR
TALLAHASSEE -- For the first time in five years, Floridians won't be able to stock up on school supplies and clothes this summer without paying the state sales tax.
The Florida Legislature is expected to approve a 2002-03 state budget Monday that will not include the popular back-to-school tax-free shopping days. Key lawmakers and lobbyists met into the predawn hours Friday nailing down the final details of the $50-billion plan, which lacks the consumer tax holiday but grants corporations a $262-million tax break to encourage them to buy new equipment.
"The message is clear: $262-million for the corporations, zip for the consumer," said Bill Newton, interim director of the Florida Consumer Action Network.
Also included in the budget plan: tuition increases for community college and university students; more money for advocates for children in foster care; and $100-million to tighten security around Florida in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Lawmakers must approve the budget Monday, the final day of a special session called by Gov. Jeb Bush to finish work the Legislature failed to complete during the regular session. They already have agreed on a rewrite of the state education code and on the duties of a new chief financial officer.
While Bush and state legislators say the budget offers a 6 percent increase in per student spending, the actual increase is less than half that after accounting for inflation and restoring last year's budget cuts. The budget also will increase spending for mentoring and reading programs.
As public education spending remains relatively flat, college students will pay more for tuition. Tuition for community college students rises 3 percent, and tuition for university students will rise 5 percent. Tuition for graduate students could rise an additional 5 percent, and tuition for out-of-state students could leap by as much as 20 percent.
"This is going to be a hardship on students," said Michael Griffin, student body president at the University of South Florida. "I agree that we need to be paying more, but there's a better way to do it."
Larry Abele, provost at Florida State University, said Florida's tuition rates are well below those in many other states.
"Students in Florida could not possibly get a better education at a lower cost," Abele said.
Low-income adults will have access to hearing aids, vision and emergency dental care while those who have exhausted their own health insurance and depend on the state's Medically Needy program are covered for another year.
The budget plan also gives state workers a 2.5 percent raise but privatizes the state's personnel services, which state officials estimate will save $5.5-million next year. Hiring a private company to handle the state's personnel work has been one of Bush's priorities.
The proposal would shift the work of state agencies' human resources offices to Cincinnati-based Convergys Corp. The move will eliminate more than 850 state jobs over two years. It's not clear how many of those workers might be hired by the private firm.
The proposed budget also includes an additional $7.5-million for the guardian ad litem program, which provides advocates for children in foster care.
"If a judge feels like an attorney needs to be appointed then the child will have one," said Rep. Sandy Murman, R-Tampa, who heads up a new committee charged with investigating the state's child protective services agency.
The proposed budget also is filled with local projects.
The University of South Florida would get $20-million to start an Alzheimer's research center with help from Rep. Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, the incoming House speaker whose father died of complications from the disease. The budget also earmarks $500,000 for Florida International Museum and $250,000 for the Museum of History in St. Petersburg.
The spending plan has its critics.
House Minority Leader Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, accused Republicans of putting "their corporate cronies first and our children last." Environmentalists complained that millions in conservation dollars were raided to pay for other services. And lawmakers and lobbyists alike frantically tried to insert provisions that had failed during the regular legislative session into the budget before it went to be printed.
House budget chairman Carlos Lacasa, R-Miami, stayed at work until 2 a.m. Friday, putting out last-minute fires that threatened to blow up the deal. Lacasa said Senate President John McKay wanted to limit the money the state pays television stations to air commercials touting state programs. The broadcasters helped defeat McKay's effort to close some sales tax loopholes.
"He made clear to me the magnitude of importance of this issue," Lacasa said.
The compromise included in the proposed budget would prevent state and local governments from using state money to pay for advertising on ballot issues.
Also included is $20-million to help Jacksonville lure a DaimlerChrylser plant and almost $100-million for bolstering security around the state in the wake of Sept. 11.
More money would go for seaport security, special chemical protection suits for law enforcement and machines that allow inspectors to screen trucks coming across the state border.
-- Times staff writer Stephen Hegarty contributed to this report, which also includes information from Times wires.
2002-03 state budget
Highlights from 2002-03 state budget that the Legislature is expected to approve Monday:
No tax-free shopping week.
$262-million tax break for businesses that make new investments.
5 percent tuition increase for university students; 3 percent tuition increase for community colleges.
2.5 percent pay raise for state workers.
-- Source: Times research
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire