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State House Passes Budget on Party Line Vote

After four hours of harsh, partisan debate, the House approved a $67.2 billion budget plan Thursday which relies on cuts to schools, health programs and human services – a marked contrast to a Senate’s budget, beefed-up by anticipated dollars from Washington and gambling.

Democrats derided the approach of the Republican-ruled House, saying there were no attempts at closing longstanding corporate sales-tax exemptions that could have pulled millions of dollars into the recession-wracked state treasury.

But Republicans defended their approach – calling it realistic for a state facing a $3.2 billion budget shortfall.

The measure cleared on a 74-44 party-line vote, setting the stage for what could prove a month’s worth of negotiations with the Senate, whose $69.4 billion spending plan includes $1.3 billion in additional federal stimulus and Seminole Indian gambling money that are still awaiting approval in Congress and the Legislature, respectively.

House Republicans said the plan they supported wisely avoided imposing tax- and fee-hikes to a state already burdened by record-high unemployment and foreclosure levels.

“We do have optimism built into this budget,” Rep. Tom Grady, R-Naples, told House members, responding to Democratic criticism. “But it is realistic optimism.”

Democrats said the House budget falls short by cutting public school spending by $52-per-student, eliminating state dollars for the Florida Forever environmental land-buying program and Everglades restoration, and reducing health coverage for 5,800 low-income pregnant women.

While the House maintains such big-ticket items as the state’s Medically Needy program and Medicaid aged and disabled services, cuts are proposed for substance abuse, mental health and developmentally disabled programs. Hospitals, nursing homes and HMOs also would have state payments reduced, a stance also embraced by the Senate.

University tuition in both the House and Senate spending plans could rise by as much as 15 percent, drawing more heat from Democrats.

“It may be a balanced budget, but it has no vision,” said Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee. “This should be about jobs and the economy….cuts, cuts, cuts can have a very damaging effect on the state.”

The biggest injections of dollars by the House stem from redirecting $788 million from agency trust funds and marking the $600 million Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund, used primarily for children’s health care, as part of a $1.8 billion reserve, a level that matches the Senate.

Both sides are looking to salt-away cash in case the economy continues to erode.

About $2.3 billion in federal stimulus money – the final installment of more than $8 billion that has propped-up state spending for more than two years, also is included in both the House and Senate blueprints.

But overall, the Senate’s spending decisions were eased by that chamber’s use of $880 million in enhanced federal Medicaid assistance, still awaiting approval in Congress.

The Senate also deploys $412 million that would be available only if the Legislature approves a compact with the Seminole Tribe, allowing for Las Vegas-style gambling at seven tribal casinos, a deal that by this week’s session midpoint, still has not advanced in either chamber.

The Senate also banks on several million dollars in property taxes flowing into state education coffers with all 67 counties imposing a .25-mill levy approved last year by only 42 counties.

All told, the vast divide between the spending plans by the House and Senate could make budget negotiations virtually impossible to conduct until the two sides reach an accord on how much they can realistically spend.

But the Senate defended its “what-if” approach to 2010-11 spending.

“Do you provide for those funds in the budget and show where they’ll be spent? I think that makes a case for why these revenues are important,” said Senate Ways and Means Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

In the House, lawmakers scrapped over whether Democrats had been shut-out of the budget process, despite Republican leaders touting a new “transparency,” with budget documents and spending proposals more accessible online and in print this session.

Lawmakers from both parties turned to popular culture themes to make their case. The movie “Shelter Island,” “the book, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and television’s “Undercover Boss,” all found a place in House rhetoric Thursday.

Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, noted the House budget was positioned for approval on April Fool’s day. Reciting a litany of cuts, Saunders concluded, “Somebody must be joking.”

House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands of Weston disputed Republican claims that the budget is “fiscally prudent.”

“It’s nothing more than a fiscally mean budget,” Sands said.

House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, struck back.

“It is not foolish to balance Florida’s budget within existing revenues,” Hasner said, accusing Democrats of being “a party of spend more and tax more.”

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