By ALISA ULFERTS and JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published April 27, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - An impasse over school funding blocked a deal on a $57-billion state budget Monday night, heightening tension between the Florida House and Senate in the final days of the 2004 session.
Budget talks, which began more than a week ago with $1-billion separating the two chambers, broke down over a few million dollars.
Senate leaders accused House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of renegging on an agreement to change the cost-of-living formula for school districts.
The arcane issue inflamed passions in a session marked by little of the rancor and division of last year, when special sessions were required through the summer before the Legislature was done.
It wasn't the money as much as the principle that was at stake, lawmakers said.
Most of the differences between the House and Senate had been peacefully settled over the weekend.
Lawmakers agreed to a modest 4.5 percent increase in per-student school spending and tuition hikes of 7.5 percent at universities and 5 percent at community colleges.
They also agreed to spend about $22-billion on social service for the poor and sick. They also carved out $120-million for water projects, including several in the Tampa Bay area, and $300-million for land conservation.
A nine-day sales tax holiday, cuts to nursing home funding, construction for universities and community colleges and specific water projects were among the final items legislative leaders agreed on before Monday night's stalemate.
But the school funding issue proved impassable.
Senate President Jim King was optimistic midday that a deal could be reached, but turned pessimistic as day turned to night.
"For over a week and a half, I thought there was an agreement," King, R-Jacksonville, told senators Monday evening.
King was so frustrated that he delayed Senate action on a bill to expand public records exemptions for an Alzheimer's clinic in Tampa that is a pet project of Byrd's.
State law requires a 72-hour cooling-off period before a budget deal can be approved, and King worried time was slipping away. The session could still end on time if a deal is in place by midafternoon today, said Senate Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt.
Byrd denied there ever was a deal on school funding.
"If we had an agreement, the budget would be finalized," Byrd said.
Under the traditional education formula, Miami-Dade and Broward counties get more than two-thirds of a $212-million pot that compensates them for their higher cost of living. Pinellas traditionally gets an extra $5-million a year.
But this year, the Senate revamped the cost-of-living formula to include average wages and salary purchasing power relative to the cost of goods.
The result: Miami-Dade and Broward would lose $35-million, and counties like Hillsborough and Duval, where the average wage doesn't buy as much, would get a few million more. Hernando and Pasco also would fare well under the Senate plan.
King is from Duval, so he supports the deal.
Byrd is from Hillsborough but is running for the U.S. Senate and needs support in South Florida.
Most of the South Florida members oppose the changes, including an influential bloc of Hispanics who support Byrd's Senate bid.
Byrd said he considered the school funding formula a separate issue, unrelated to any budget deal and not required to be included in the budget.
The Senate disagreed.
Senators were astounded by Byrd's position. Lawmakers traditionally won't agree to a budget until they know how much more money their school districts will be receiving.
"There isn't a soul out here who would know what their school districts would be getting," King told the Senate. "Now that doesn't make any sense at all."
The House's education funding plan is the same as last year, with a $9-million increase in funding for rural counties, which would give Citrus a $245,000 boost.
Pinellas schools lobbyist Steve Swartzel said he's not surprised the issue flamed up this year. "The issue has been around a long time, just not this publicly," he said.