tampabay.com

Schools win in state budget

Florida lawmakers agree to a budget that raises funding by 6.2 percent per student, worth millions locally.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 3, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - The Florida House and Senate struck a deal Monday on a $63.5-billion budget that includes the biggest boost in school spending in years and $225-million in tax cuts.

The budget also raises college tuition by 5 percent, gives state workers a minimum pay raise of 3.6 percent and offers bigger raises for county court judges and some elected state attorneys and public defenders.

And it sets aside $1.2-billion to be added to a rainy day fund.

"The budget's resolved. It's done," said Rep. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the lead budget-writer in the House.

The last pieces smoothly fell into place even after Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, faulted the House for loading its budget with dozens of projects in legislators' home districts, known as "turkeys."

Tampa Bay area spending projects that survived include $15-million for the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute in Tampa, $5-million for a new Plant City courthouse in Lee's district, $4-million toward the relocation of the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg and $1-million for a sewer relocation project in Brooksville.

Education spending increases 6.2 percent per pupil. That means $112.4-million more for Hillsborough County schools and $36.3-million for Pinellas.

More than half the increase in public school funding will come from local property taxes without a hike in tax rates because of an expanded tax base.

"The dollar figure is excellent," said Pinellas schools lobbyist Steve Swartzel. "A $36-million dollar increase is pretty good."

Yet even with more than $5-billion extra this year, lawmakers again raised tuition and delayed higher nursing home staffing. Instead, they set aside $1.2-billion as a hedge against a downturn.

"We need to save money for next year. Who knows what the economy will be like in 2006?" Negron said.

The Senate agreed to pay for 55 new judges to ease case backlogs, fewer than half the number the House wanted. Lawmakers have not decided which counties will get them.

Every county court judge in Florida will get a $5,000 raise on top of a 3.6 percent salary hike, and legislators agreed to give higher pay raises to state attorneys and public defenders in the 13 judicial circuits with populations of less than 1-million.

Troopers and correctional officers also will get raises above the 3.6 percent minimum, according to a formula based on years of service.

Negron, a lawyer, is running for state attorney general next year but said his political ambitions played no role in his support for spending more money on the judicial system.

"The fact is, I'm a guardian of an equal, independent third branch of government," Negron said. "Those are values that I believe in."

The House won a $2,850 tuition subsidy for a student attending a private Florida college, the most ever budgeted for the Florida Resident Access Grant.

Lee balked at some projects he said were not reviewed or supported by state agencies and faced a likely Bush veto. While those projects were sponsored by individual lawmakers, some of them were initiated by lobbyists. He declined to say which projects he opposed.

A visibly tired Lee confessed late Monday that he had been so busy negotiating budget details that he lacked a good sense of the big picture.

Among the budget losers were hospitals in areas hit hardest by last year's four hurricanes.

The House wanted to give $25-million to nonprofit hospitals in Pensacola, Stuart, Boynton Beach and Boca Raton. Several affected hospitals are represented by one of the Capitol's most influential lobbying firms, Smith & Ballard.

The Senate refused to support it, saying the plan had too many unanswered questions. The compromise was a study to determine the damage before the 2006 Legislature.

"I think that may be the prudent course of action, to have better numbers," said Negron, whose county is home to one of the affected hospitals, Martin Memorial.

In another budget-related issue, the Senate voted Monday to limit tax money flowing to a trust fund for affordable housing and land conservation. Extra revenue would be spent for other needs.

Senators said the move was triggered by a surge in tax collections from a robust real estate market. "This trust fund has doubled in the last three years," said Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-Palm Beach Gardens. "We're trying to reallocate the dollars to the places they are needed the most."

Critics said lawmakers were reneging on a promise they made years ago to spend the money only on housing and land conservation.

"As a result of this bill, future trust funds will get less money," said Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach. "I believe that's breaking faith with the public."

The House must still approve the Senate's changes with HB 1889.

Monday's budget talks were a race against time. The Florida Constitution requires a 72-hour waiting period before final votes can be taken, so an agreement must be in hand today for the session to end on time by 6 p.m. Friday.

After the Legislature passes a budget, Gov. Jeb Bush can veto line items.

--Times staff writer Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.