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Florida House, Senate budget priorities differ
SOURCE: Orlando Sentinel
John Kennedy and Beth Kassab
April 08 2005

TALLAHASSEE -- The House and Senate approved dueling versions of a $60 billion-plus state budget Thursday, setting the stage for tough spending decisions as the legislative session enters its closing weeks.

Key differences include school funding, tax cuts and even the size of the budget's bottom line -- all of which must be worked out before the Legislature adjourns early next month.

"We're out of the early rounds," shrugged Senate President Tom Lee, after the Senate voted 40-0 to approve its $62.1 billion budget.

The move came shortly after the House approved its $63.3 billion spending plan on a 115-0 vote.

This year, the usually arduous process of budget-writing has been eased by skyrocketing tax receipts stemming from Florida's robust housing market and hurricane rebuilding. But the extra cash brings new challenges, lawmakers said.

"I think it makes it a little more difficult to be fiscally disciplined," said Senate budget chairwoman Lisa Carlton, R-Sarasota.

The House includes in its budget hundreds of millions of dollars in hometown projects sought by lawmakers. The Senate, however, wants to build up state reserves to avoid forecasted budget deficits three years off.

The House also has approved close to $500 million in tax breaks, which Lee said the Senate is still pondering.

Eliminating the state's intangibles tax on investments would pull about $300 million from the state treasury for the benefit of taxpayers whose average assets top $1 million. Other cuts pushed by the House include a sales-tax holiday for shoppers, new breaks for manufacturers and research companies, and for residents buying hurricane supplies.

"We're not going to cut the recurring revenue, because we know we'll have a deficit," Lee said about tax cuts, which also have been endorsed by Gov. Jeb Bush.

There were points of agreement as well. The House and Senate OK'd public-school increases of at least $1.2 billion, easily covering an anticipated enrollment growth of 66,313 new students and providing a per-student boost of at least 5 percent.

"It's certainly better than what we're normally used to seeing," said John Pavelchak, the Seminole County School Board's budget director.

But a fight is looming about the Senate's plan to steer almost $96 million from counties with high property values, such as Orange and those in South Florida, and scatter it among poor and rural counties.

Forty-eight of Florida's 67 counties benefit from the so-called equalization effort, but those who would lose money under the formula include some large, urban districts.

Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-West Palm Beach, said the Senate was wrong to "be a Robin Hood and try to take from the rich and give to the poor."

South Florida counties are further hit in both budgets by the second year of a change in the school-funding formula that redirects cost-of-living money to midsize counties.

The windfall Orange and most Central Florida counties gain under this revamped formula easily makes up for whatever money would be lost to the equalization effort. So Central Florida lawmakers aren't complaining.

Buoyed by more funding, health-care programs for some of the state's most desperately ill residents, pregnant women and other poor Floridians are restored in both budgets -- after being targeted for elimination in July.

But even in a year of budget plenty, the House and Senate agreed to cuts certain to affect some of Florida's frailest residents.

Both budgets would save $68 million by delaying nursing-home-staffing increases approved in 2001 in exchange for new legal shields that limit patients and their families from suing for negligence and abuse.

More staffing was supposed to boost the quality of care.

"We pass legislation here for a reason," said Rep. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood. "Someday, I'd like to see it implemented."

Low-income Floridians whose health care is covered by Medicaid also could feel the pinch of the plan -- endorsed in both budgets -- to rein in rising program costs by freezing payments to nursing homes, hospitals and health-maintenance organizations. That would save $413.5 million.

"You can't say you're not cutting the recipients of these programs when you impose cuts on the providers," said Karen Woodall, who lobbies on behalf of health and social programs.

But ruling Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate said the cuts were modest compared with the programs drawing renewed state dollars.

Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said "good news abounds" for health-care funding this year as the state takes advantage of a windfall of cash after the hurricanes.

He said the House health budget seeks to serve a wide range of Floridians, citing $2.8 million for mental health in Orange County and $20.7 million for providing dentures to low-income Floridians.

"If you don't have teeth, this is a big deal," Bean said.

John Kennedy can be reached at jkennedy@orlandosentinel.com.Beth Kassab can be reached at bkassab@orlandosentinel.com. Both also can be reached at 850-222-5564.

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