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What’s In (and Out) of the Budget?

Lawmakers passed the $66.5 billion state budget for the coming fiscal year.

The following is an overview of some of the items in the budget awaiting Gov. Charlie Crist's signature.

EDUCATION:

The Legislature increased per-student spending on K-12 schools slightly to $6,873 per student on average statewide. The increase is about 0.4 percent, or $55 per student. The overall Pre-K – 12 budget is $13.4 billion, 14.5 percent higher than last year. Democrats point out that the budget relies on federal stimulus funding, and without that, lawmakers may not have been able to increase spending on students. It also relies on a federal waiver that depends on Florida spending a certain amount. Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, said Friday it appears Florida will be eligible for that.

“It looks like we'll have a budget where we won't have to lay off teachers,” said Wise, the Senate's K-12 budget chairman.

Republicans last week touted the flexibility the Legislature's education plan allows local districts. That includes allowing school systems to use “categorical” funds, normally earmarked for certain items like transportation or books, to be used for other purposes. The budget plan also allows some school systems without many poor children to eliminate school breakfast programs.

School days may be fewer. The flexibility plan gives districts some leeway on how they calculate the requirement that students go to school for 180 days. If they go the same number of hours, districts could compress those hours into fewer days, allowing for four-day weeks for example to save money.

Tax increase: Republicans have tried to sidestep criticism that they are raising taxes, and technically Tallahassee lawmakers aren't raising school taxes. But Democrats – and local school districts – would likely argue that's a bit of a technicality: the budget authorizes a pretty sizeable local tax increase to allow schools to spend more while giving lawmakers a way to sidestep the blame. The tax increase isn't required. But districts that think Tallahassee isn't giving them enough can levy an additional property tax of .25 mils if the local school board votes to do it and voters then approve in 2010. The money could be used for either capital or operating expenses.

Teacher merit pay: The budget continues funding of the Dale Hickam Excellent Teaching Program at just under $47 million and keeps the program the way it currently is.

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HIGHER ED:

Colleges and universities are getting a much better deal than they initially feared.

Only a couple weeks after university presidents warned that proposed budget cuts meant “Armageddon” for their schools, the $66.5 billion conference budget actually boosts money for state universities.

The $22 million increase in overall state funding even includes a $5 million windfall for University of South Florida’s Lakeland campus, a favorite of Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales. The money will go toward hiring faculty at the campus, although it was not requested by school officials.

The state university system sees a 1.1 percent increase – but much of the burden for paying for universities is on the students. The conference budget increases state university undergraduate tuition by about $6.50 a credit hour. There's no reduction to need-based aid.

The community colleges budget grows by nearly 6 percent under the plan, but this includes an 8 percent tuition increase. Lawmakers relied on $83 million in federal stimulus money for most, by far, of the $99 million increase.

The budget also continues full funding for four-year baccalaureate programs at state colleges, which some had feared would be cut.

But balancing the budget wasn't easy, noted the Senate's top higher education budget writer.

“The bad news is we've got to do something ... to get our economy moving in the state of Florida if we're going to get our K-20 system to be the system we all strive for,” said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach.

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HEALTH CARE:

Overall health and human services funding grew by nearly $2.7 billion. The growth was mostly thanks to federal stimulus money that increased the federal Medicaid matching rate from 55 percent to 68 percent and the $1 a pack cigarette tax increase. With the feds chipping in nearly $7 for every $3 that Tallahassee spends, it made sense to increase spending there.

The state's Medicaid program will grow from roughly $16 billion overall to just under $18 billion and there will be enough money to pay for the increasing Medicaid caseload. Florida will be serving an estimated 2.5 million people in the Medicaid program in the coming year.

The Legislature gave a welcomed reprieve to elderly people who depend on the Meds-AD program, a prescription drug program, and the Medically Needy program, which provides help to people who aren't Medicaid eligible but need health care help. The two programs were slated to end July 1, but the Legislature funded them at continuation level through 2010.

The Agency for Health Care Administration, which administers Medicaid, saw a 12.5 percent increase in its budget, something few agencies expected at the outset of the year. The Department of Health Budget was increased by nearly 4 percent. And the two agencies remained separate, avoiding the consolidation that Gov. Crist had proposed.

Biomedical research programs the state pays for were saved by the cigarette tax increase, which will put $25 million each into the King biomedical program and the Bankhead-Coley research program.

The health care budget isn't all rosy. Nursing homes see reimbursement rates reduced by 3 percent, but they can offset that cost through an assessment they levied on themselves. Minority health initiatives were cut by $1 million in the DOH budget.

Hospitals also will see Medicaid cuts, though there may be an opportunity to buy back some if money becomes available.

The Department of Children and Families and the Agency for Persons With Disabilities saw increased budgets as well. DCF's is 5.1 percent larger. ADP's is 2.7 percent bigger.

The budget also includes money for the Department of Veterans Affairs top priority this year, start up staffing for a new veterans' nursing home in St. Augustine. The budget includes funding for nine positions at the Clyde E. Lassen State Veterans Nursing Home, a 120-bed facility currently under construction and scheduled for a 2010 opening.

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STATE EMPLOYEES:

Effective July 1, the base salary for state workers making more than $45,000 will be cut by 2 percent, which amounts to about $900 a year. None of those employees will see their salary drop below $45,000, however, which was done to avoid the possibility that someone making right at the cutoff taking a $900 pay cut when if they just made a few dollars less they'd be protected.

State workers are getting one break, though. Health insurance premiums for state workers are slated to go up by $299 for individuals and $677 for families this year, but the state will pick up the full cost of that increase.

In a show of solidarity, legislators are also taking a pay cut. The 5 percent pay cut lawmakers got in the current fiscal year will continue, with an additional 2 percent cut tacked, meaning legislators will now be making 7 percent lower than at the start of last year.

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TRANSPORTATION FUNDING:

Transportation spending was cut by 4.8 percent with the State Transportation Trust Fund being swept by $120 million. It could have been worse, though. The House initially contemplated a $400 million sweep.

There's new highway safety money available because of a non-budget bill the Legislature passed. With Gov. Crist's signature making primary seat belt enforcement the law starting June 30, the state will qualify for more than $35.5 million in highway safety money that it has already built into its 2009-2010 budget.

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TAXES:

The large tax increase that makes the biggest dent in the deficit is the $1 per pack increase in the cigarette tax, though Republicans and Democrats alike agreed to call it a surcharge to avoid having to take blame for raising taxes. The roughly $800 million in revenue from the $1 per pack tax increase that will start July 1 is earmarked for the Health Care Trust Fund in the Agency for Health Care Administration.

The Legislature did close some tax loopholes, particularly one that allows the avoidance certain documentary stamp taxes by the formation of a limited liability corporation, or LLC, to transfer property.

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FEE INCREASES:

The Legislature moved to increase fees to avoid deeper budget cuts and in some cases the increases are pretty hefty. Reinstating a suspened driver's license will increase, late payment fees on driver's license renewals go up 15-fold, from $1 to $15, and the cost of the original driver's license will go from $27 to $48. Renewing a driver's license goes from $20 to $48.

There are also 35 percent inceases on all vehicle registration fees, and vehicle title fees more than double.

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ENVIRONMENT:

The environmental community is split – with some prasing lawmakers for Everglades funding, but disappointment that the Legislature didn't fund new bonds for Florida Forever. Some environmentalists have also trumpeted the fact the Legislature didn't totally kill Florida Forever, with the existing bonding authority continued. “We are hopeful that the documentary stamp loophole fix in SB 2430 and an improving economy will set the stage for full Florida Forever funding next year,” said the Nature Conservancy's director, Jeff Danter.

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UNEMPLOYMENT COMPENSATION:

Thanks to about $776 million in federal stimulus money, Florida's legions of unemployed will see higher weekly benefits for up to 20 additional weeks. Legislators, however, turned down another $444 million in federal funds by refusing to expand the pool of unemployed workers, saying the state would end up footing the bill when federal money runs out. Republicans defeated the proposal on a 70-45 vote after complaining about the "strings attached" to the stimulus funding that would have required the state to make any eligibility changes permanent. Democrats said the $75 million in state funds needed to draw down the federal dollars was a good investment and lawmakers could revert back to more limited coverage after the federal money is spent.

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CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND COURTS:

State attorneys, public defenders and the state lawyers who represent death row inmates weren't cut in the budget.

But drug treatment programs in the Department of Corrections are cut by $10 million, though federal stimulus money for Drug Courts will help pick up some of that slack by diverting offenders.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement loses 109 investigative services positions from last year's 705, but no sworn officers will be cut.

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GAMING:

Lawmakers hammered out a gaming deal at the last minute last week that will bring a minimum of $150 million to the state each year. This depends on the Seminole Tribe agreeing to the Legislature-approved compact. Lawmakers have said they actually project that they will receive closer to $300 million in the first year and more in the years after that. If the tribe agrees to the compact, the state will deposit all income into the Educational Enhancement Trust Fund.

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MISCELLANEOUS:

Some drivers may have to go a little farther to get their driver's license renewed because of cost saving measures included in the budget. The budget for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles includes cuts that will mean the closure of driver's license offices in Crawfordville, Miami, Cross City, Green Cove Springs, and Wauchula and two in Jacksonville. In some of those communities, including Jacksonville, the local tax collector will take over the staffing and housing of the driver's license office, but in others the office will simply close and drivers will have to go farther to renew their license.

State aid to libraries was marked to lose all state funding but budget negotiators agreed in the final days to restore $21.2 million for state aid to libraries after a heavy lobbying effort by library lovers. The legislative library at the Capitol didn't fare so well. It will be consolidated with the main state library at the R.A. Gray Building a couple blocks from the Capitol.

House budget co-chairman David Rivera retreated from a proposed ban on state funding of embryonic stem cell research, saying there aren't any plans to spend any state money on the research anyway. The House also backed off another policy item that had been tucked into the House budget, a ban on state education dollars going to pay for academics to travel to Cuba or other countries considered terrorist states.

Funding for the Council on the Status of Black Men and Boys was eliminated.

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