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Talks turn to fine points of budget

The House and Senate hope to resolve issues such as tax breaks and spending on social services.

By JO BECKER and TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- With just a handful of big issues remaining, the Florida Legislature is putting the finishing touches on a $50-billion plus budget that includes dramatic increases in spending on public schools, roads and social services and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts.

Despite a robust economy that left the state flush with cash, university and community college students will still face up to a 5 percent tuition increase, and most state workers will receive just a 2.5 percent raise.

The Republican-controlled House and Senate hope to resolve the remaining high-profile issues today.

House Speaker John Thrasher wants a new medical school at his alma mater, Florida State University. Black and Hispanic lawmakers want two new law schools. And Thrasher and Senate President Toni Jennings are still battling over how much of the $13-billion surplus in the state's pension fund can be spent.

"We have a great budget -- we have education funded at historic levels," Thrasher said Monday night. "We ought not to be fighting over very small issues."

"We're close" said Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor.

Earlier Monday, Gov. Jeb Bush praised the budget even as he prodded the Republican leaders of the two chambers to finish up the budget by today so they can go home on time Friday.

"I would ask the Legislature to do what they can now," Bush said, "to finalize this budget."

Bush also said he could support the two new law schools, even though the Board of Regents says the state does not need them.

"If the criteria stays as we've seen it, to keep the focus of the schools on recruiting and graduating talented African-American and Hispanic students, I will support it," Bush said.

Although tuition at all state universities and community colleges will rise, some point out that Florida's tuition still is among the lowest in the nation. Board of Regents member Steve Uhlfelder said "it's still a bargain."

While Jennings is continuing to seek more money for teacher raises and employee benefits, House budget negotiators have already agreed to increase spending on K-12 education by $927-million.

Lawmakers have also addressed traffic congestion, tentatively agreeing to spend $275-million on road projects across the state. Lawmakers have agreed to set aside $105-million for Everglades restoration next year, to be followed by more than $1-billion over the next 10 years.

The tentative budget compromise includes hundreds of millions of dollars in increased spending on social services to benefit foster kids, the elderly and the developmentally disabled.

The compromise includes an $81-million spending increase on Kidcare, a program that provides health care for the children of the working poor. The increase will mean that children now on the waiting list will get health insurance, but lawmakers did not waive the requirement that counties come up with their own, local matching dollars to fully participate. Advocates say thousands of eligible children in counties like Hillsborough, Hernando and Citrus will still go unserved.

The details of the tax break package have yet to be worked out. But it is likely that the state will reduce the intangibles tax levied on investments like stocks and bonds. Residents can also look forward to a nine-day sales tax holiday in August on clothing items costing less than $100. In addition, lawmakers plan to cut taxes paid by restaurants on alcoholic beverages. Other tax cuts are expected to benefit a host of other industries.

For days, the only major sticking point between the House and the Senate has been Jennings' plan to use $3.4-billion of the $13-billion surplus in the state's pension plan to pay for better employee benefits and a raise of up to 8 percent for teachers.

At one point, Jennings was vowing to send the session into overtime to get her way.

But after a night of vote counting among her own senators, followed by a news conference Monday at which the governor repeated his opposition to her plan, Jennings sounded more conciliatory.

"In all those years," Jennings said as she looked back on her 24 year legislative career, "I've never been about winning and losing. Good public policy has never been "I come to you or you come to me.' "

In fact, the Senate has largely come around to the House position.

Latvala said the Senate is now willing to accept the House and the governor's recommendation that only about $650-million of the surplus be spent. He said the House has put forward an offer that would allow local school boards to use some of that money to raise teachers' salaries as Jennings had wanted.

"Whatever we do, it's going to result in almost a billion dollars increase for public schools," he said. "In my legislative career that has never been done."

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