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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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With spending up, even Democrats support state budget

TALLAHASSEE — Democrats faulted a failure to expand Medicaid coverage in Florida but many of them voted their support anyway Thursday for spending plans that passed both chambers of the Republican-dominated Legislature.

The decision sets up final budget negotiations later this week.

This year’s budget-writing process was bolstered by an increase of roughly $1.2 billion in state revenue, which fueled increased spending in infrastructure, education, and services geared toward children. This boost help draw the support of many Democrats for the spending plans.

Both Senate and House plans include roughly $500 million in tax cuts, including a $395 million roll back of the vehicle registration fees that were increased in 2009. That’s a top priority for Gov. Rick Scott, who signed separate bill Wednesday carrying those reductions. They equate to as much as $25 for the average motorist.

“The House budget strikes the right balance between funding our state’s priorities, providing substantial tax cuts for Florida families and businesses, and responsibly maintaining over $2.9 billion in reserves,” said House budget chief Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.

His chamber passed its $75.3 billion budget on a 100-16 vote, with more Democrats in support than opposed. The Senate’s $74.9 billion plan was passed on a 38-2 vote, with opposition from Democrats Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Dwight Bullard of Miami, who said the budget did not do enough to help the needy.

“Those folks don’t have the means to go to Tallahassee, to come here and plead for the important things in the budget, to pay folks to advocate for them,” Bullard said.

Senate budget chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, responded that poorer counties in fact received “special attention.”

“I don’t see a bias in favor of affluence,” Negron said, waving his papers. “I see a bias in favor of need.”

Before passing its budget, the Senate considered 32 amendments, including some for the Tampa-area.

The Senate added $500,000 for St. Petersburg College’s Bay Pines Learning Center Project, and $50,000 for the University of South Florida’s School of Medicine. With that money, USF would start a pilot project to screen and educate high school athletes about the Sickle Cell Trait, a blood disorder that affects roughly 8 percent of African-Americans.

Democrats were also unhappy because for the second year in a row the Legislature decided not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

“I don’t have mixed emotions, I have a grave concern, I have a heavy heart,” said state Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville.

It’s the tone that has highlighted the budget debate all session. Democrats, who said expansion would have brought the state $470 million for next year’s budget, admit that the boost in spending includes some good items, but they have spoken out on the Medicaid issue.

Republicans were critical of Democrats who decided to oppose the budget, highlighting all the things a “no” vote would oppose.

“If you decide to not support this bill, you are voting against children, seniors, our disabled and the future of Florida for bio-medical research,” said state Sen. Matt Hudson, the Naples Republican who crafts the House’s health care budget.

His proposed budget included funding increases in each of those areas, including $20 million to take roughly 1,200 people off the list of those wanting to enroll in home and community-based services run by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, which was made a high priority.

Republicans stressed that they made no decision to increase the rate that local governments pay, but the revenue increases is the result of rebounding property values.

“Proposed taxes are not being increased, what is happening is property values are going up,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Overall, both chambers fund public schools at roughly $19 billion, an $800 million increase over current levels.

McKeel says that as the Legislature moves into final budget negotiations – known as “conference committee” – the differences between the Senate and House will be easily overcome.

“The differences are not as extraordinary as they have been in years past,” he said.

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