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Lawmakers poised to approve nearly $82.3 billion budget

Putting behind a year’s worth of rancor, the Florida Legislature on Friday will approve a more than $82.3 billion budget that includes a slight boost in money for schools but also rejects many of Gov. Rick Scott‘s main priorities.

Just a few months ago the Republican-controlled Legislature was rushing to pass a budget to avoid a state government shutdown. This time the House and Senate put together a spending plan for this year that increases the state budget by about 5 percent without the arguing and finger-pointing that had consumed most of 2015. The vote guarantees that legislators end their session on time.

Along the way, though, legislators forged a budget that ignored much of what the GOP governor wanted. They shot down his bid for a $250 million fund to lure new companies to the state. Scott’s tax cut package, a centerpiece of his 2014 re-election bid, was scaled back significantly. Instead of using a budget surplus to give tax cuts largely to businesses, legislative leaders instead steered money to a small trim in local property taxes.

Both Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli insisted that their approach was a reaction to recent news that showed that Florida’s economic recovery may be faltering and that tax collections aren’t growing as robustly as once forecast.

“There’s a reality to how much money you have available and the resources you have and we had to recognize that,” Crisafulli said this week.

There are other places that legislators also bucked Scott. They agreed to borrow money in order to set aside more than $700 million in school construction projects. Florida in the past would routinely borrow money for building projects, but they had stopped because of  continued opposition from Scott.

Crisafulli defended the practice, saying that it makes sense to use bond proceeds for construction with interest rates so low. Still the move could risk a veto from Scott, who last year slashed nearly $500 million from the budget before signing it into law.

Democrats have usually been sharply critical of the annual budget. But this year they said they would vote for the budget to “send a message” to Scott. That means that the Republican-controlled Legislature should have enough votes to override Scott in case he vetoes the budget or spending items within it. It takes a two-thirds vote to override a veto.

“We have a governor who refuses to govern and that has enabled us to cross party lines,” said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat.

Some legislators, however, said there are shortcomings in the budget. They complained it doesn’t include an across-the-board pay raise for state workers or boost spending enough in Florida’s troubled prisons system. A push by Florida’s prison chief to hire enough correctional officers to switch from a 12-hour shift to an 8-hour shift was not approved by budget negotiators.

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Rep. Charles Van Zant, a North Florida Republican who is leaving his office because of term limits, harshly criticized GOP leaders for refusing to set aside more money for state workers and prison employees.

“We have the money, but we are cheating our employees,” Van Zant said.

Despite saying they didn’t have money for pay raises, legislators still spread throughout the budget tens of millions for hometown projects. Some of the same projects were vetoed by Scott last year, leading to rampant speculation that legislative leaders may have already agreed to override Scott. Crisafulli and Gardiner have continued to insist they don’t have any agreement on overrides.

“There’s going to be things in there the governor doesn’t like, there’s going to be things in there the governor likes,” Crisafulli said.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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