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House gives up teacher bonuses

Instead, school spending will rise. Meanwhile, Johnnie Byrd's agenda add-ons have some worried.

Published May 14, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - With pressure mounting daily to avoid drastic education cuts, the House on Tuesday surrendered one of its highest priorities.

Seeking to break a budget logjam with the Senate and build goodwill with school boards, House Republicans drastically downsized a teacher bonus program, a priority of House Speaker Johnnie Byrd that was unveiled in March amid great fanfare.

The money saved would be shifted to general education spending, something school boards wanted all along.

"What you're going to find is an effort to reach a consensus," said Rep. David Simmons, R-Longwood, the author of the proposal. He said Byrd supports it.

Simmons' Senate counterpart, Republican Lisa Carlton of Osprey, said her chamber has not proposed bonus money for teachers next year but added: "I think we've been working very hard on a compromise bill."

The two chambers still must find common ground on the size of a tuition increase, changes to the Bright Futures scholarship program and the crown jewel in Byrd's agenda, an Alzheimer's research institute at the University of South Florida.

Byrd wanted to spend $315-million on bonuses to keep good teachers from quitting for better-paying administrative jobs. But he faced a wall of resistance from senators and school districts - including his own in Hillsborough.

School boards objected to creating the program in a tight budget year, and some went public with their criticism. That angered House Republicans, but it appeared to get results.

A House budget panel informally agreed Tuesday to increase school spending by $200-million. The money comes mostly from changing the teacher bonus plan to a cheaper test project in three counties or by limiting it to teachers in D and F schools. The maximum first-year bonus: $2,000.

In higher education, state university presidents said they thought the House and Senate budget proposals were improving but still looked bleak. Instead of more than $100-million in cuts they feared in the regular legislative session that ended May 2, presidents now foresee a $40-million cut in the Senate and a $60-million cut in the House.

Meanwhile, Byrd added 30 measures to the House agenda. The subjects include workers' compensation, the Tampa Bay area water supply, the ban on workplace smoking, the Byrd Alzheimer's center, health care, and even the Southern Manatee Fire and Rescue District.

"We're going to be here for 16 days," said House Majority Leader Marco Rubio, R-Coral Gables. "If we are close to agreement on these issues, why not do it? We'll do as much as we can."

Byrd didn't have the 80 Republican votes he needed to add the bills Monday. But overnight, Byrd ordered every member back to the Capitol.

One member hired a lobbyist's jet. Another, a doctor, canceled his appointments with patients.

Rep. Juan Carlos Zapata, a freshman Republican from Miami, had stayed at home to help his supporters in Tuesday's Sweetwater city election. So he hopped a private jet owned by the citrus industry. Zapata said he would reimburse the citrus lobbyist for the $127 cost of a one-way AirTran fare from Miami to Tallahassee, as the law allows.

"I told some people I needed a ride up there, and some folks were nice enough to help me out," Zapata said. "It was a nice flight."

Zapata produced a copy of a $127 personal check for an airplane ticket to Derek Whitis, a lobbyist for Florida Citrus Mutual in Lakeland.

Rep. Ed Homan, R-Tampa, an orthopedic surgeon, said he canceled appointments with about 20 patients, some of them needing hip and knee replacements. "We knew this was coming and had been careful about booking surgery," Homan said.

Democrats said Byrd miscalculated badly and has overloaded the calendar, inviting fights on many fronts with the Senate.

"We'll just sit back and let this session self-destruct," said Rep. Doug Wiles of St. Augustine, the House minority leader.

Gov. Jeb Bush seemed to echo the Democrats' concerns.

"The Legislature needs to get the budget done," Bush said. "It makes no sense to complicate their lives with additional complex legislation when it's clear they're having a hard time multitasking."

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 14, 2003, 01:46:22]

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