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House, Senate make $51-billion budget deal

By JO BECKER and SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- The House and Senate struck an overnight deal on a nearly $51-billion state budget that has something in it to make almost everyone happy.

There's enough money to give teachers an average 6 percent raise and to extend the school year at 21 schools, including six in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. There's money for big boosts in spending on programs that help the elderly and disabled, plus more for a road-building binge.

Additional millions will go to projects in the hometowns of the two legislative leaders, if Gov. Jeb Bush doesn't veto the money. Senate President Toni Jennings snagged $15-million for a performing arts center in Orlando. House Speaker John Thrasher would get $45-million for a medical school at his alma mater, Florida State University. Black and Hispanic lawmakers would win two new law schools, one of which will likely be in Tampa or Orlando.

The two legislative leaders also agreed to move forward with a House plan to allow the state's 600,000 employees to opt into a new retirement plan that is riskier, but potentially more lucrative, than the state's current plan.

Under that bill, current state employees who are vested can shift their money into the new account, which is styled much like a 401(k).

After weeks of intransigence, Jennings and Thrasher sealed the deal Tuesday with hugs, kisses and congratulatory speechmaking. Lawmakers are expected to approve the budget Friday, after a mandatory 72-hour cooling-off period.

Then they will go home, ending their annual, 60-day session.

"This budget addresses the needs of Floridians," Jennings said.

"This is a principled budget," Thrasher added.

The late-night deal, reached in a telephone conversation between Jennings and Thrasher, violates the spirit, if not the letter, of rules designed to make sure that legislative business is done in public.

It also includes compromises on legislation that nominally have nothing to do with the budget.

Lawmakers agreed to take steps to reform managed health care, but probably won't allow consumers to sue HMOs for damages when care is improperly denied. Jennings agreed that the Senate will hear a House bill that redefines boundaries separating private and public lands along waterways.

But, at this point in the lawmakers' busy, final week, there's no guarantee the health care bill or the lands bill will pass.

After Thrasher revealed details of those bills Tuesday morning, Jennings said she had agreed only to hear the measures in the Senate, not to ensure their passage. Thrasher quickly concurred with her version of the private negotiations.

In another key area, lawmakers will use money from the $13-billion surplus in the state pension plan to restore pension benefits taken from the state's 54,000 law enforcement officers and firefighters during a budget squeeze years ago. The budget plan calls for the employees to be paid back over two years.

Government contributions to the pension fund will be lowered, freeing $86-million for local school districts to use for teacher raises and other needs. That is less than Jennings had hoped for and does not provide for all of the improved state employee retirement benefits she had sought.

"If any school district in the state of Florida does not give their teachers a substantial raise, then y'all ought to go out there and hold them accountable," Thrasher told House lawmakers.

Florida teachers earn about $4,700 less annually than the national average, according to the Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. The union has said teachers need an 8 percent boost for the next two years to close the gap.

State lawmakers cannot compel the districts to use all of the money for teacher pay raises, and some districts may put other needs first. Instead of the 7 percent to 8 percent raise suggested by Jennings, teachers union leaders said an average 6 percent raise is more likely.

In Pinellas County, the average teacher earns $36,750 annually, roughly comparable to the statewide average. A 6 percent increase would increase the average salary by $2,205, to $38,955.

The salary increase is part of a larger proposal to recruit more teachers and keep them in the classroom. The budget sets aside an additional $60-million for annual bonuses of up to $1,500 for teachers in tough-to-recruit areas such as math, science, foreign languages and special education. An additional $12-million will pay for bonuses of up to $3,500 for outstanding teachers in low-performing schools graded F by the state.

Lawmakers also added $70-million for summer school, tutoring programs and other measures to boost student achievement. Low-performing schools will be able to apply for another $24-million in special grants. And $60-million was set aside to reward the state's best schools and those that have shown improvement.

Overall, per-student spending will increase by 5.9 percent. That exceeds last year's 4.3 percent per student increase.

The budget also includes $11-million to pay for extended school years at 21 schools in nine counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough.

That provision, sought by Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, would allow schools to add 30 days to the school year starting in 2000-01. The designated schools are Oak Park, Robles Park and Sulphur Springs elementary schools in Hillsborough and Frontier, Gulfport and Maximo in Pinellas.

Though the unions would have preferred fewer tax cuts and more money for education, "We are pleased," said Marshall Ogletree of the FTP-NEA.

Democrats said the money will help, but said the state could have done even more in these good economic times.

"We haven't reduced class sizes to a 20-to-1 student to teacher ratio," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston. "We haven't eliminated the waiting list for child care" for the poor.

Some will not be pleased by the state budget. Despite the robust economy that had the state swimming in cash, most state workers got only a 2.5 percent raise.

State university and college students will see tuition increases of up to 5 percent. And the Supreme Court, which recently angered lawmakers by overturning a law to speed up the death penalty, did not get any of 43 new judges it said were needed to ease statewide backlogs.

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