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State Budget a Done Deal

House and Senate budget negotiators buttoned-up a $69 billion state budget just before midnight Monday, finding millions of dollars more for public schools, state libraries, Everglades restoration and projects close to influential lawmakers this election year.

Wrestling all spring with a $3.2 billion budget shortfall, lawmakers settled one of the Legislature’s perennial big-ticket items by approving a modest, $1.22 per-student average increase in public school spending, as House and Senate negotiators completed work at 11:57 p.m.

In a flurry of deal-making, state funding for libraries drew an extra $10 million – soaring to roughly the full $21 million advocates had sought, a level that makes the state eligible for more in federal grants.

Everglades restoration did even better, rocketing from $10 million to a $50 million allocation. The extra funding, though, relies on an injection of cash if Congress approves an extension of the federal Medicaid enhancement program (FMAP), which could bring Florida close to $1 billion in new money in coming months.

The FMAP money, while confined to health and human services programs, would free state dollars for use in environmental, transportation, and education programs.

One of the last items closed out was $50 million for Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital, with state aid for the financially troubled hospital reliant on a management review of its financial condition.

The rare, 11 p.m. start to the final budget negotiation between the House and Senate allowed House budget chief Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, to attend a fundraiser for his congressional campaign in Washington, D.C., hosted by leaders of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Rivera’s campaign rented a charter aircraft to get him to the Capitol Hill cocktail party, with the lawmaker returning to Tallahassee about an hour before the budget hearing began.

He defended the Legislature’s $1.22 boost in per-student funding, which represents a two-hundredths of one-percent average increase for students.

“When you consider this year, round about, a $3 billion deficit, we’re spending more on education,” Rivera said. “I think that’s important to let parents, students and teachers know that education is a priority for us.”

The budget includes at least $1.4 billion in reserves – almost half of it represented by the $600 Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund, money normally reserved for children’s health and elder programs.

But if the almost $1 billion more in Medicaid money flows to the state, much of that will be used to build reserves past $2 billion, lawmakers said.

Lawmakers have been pushing to set aside a formidable amount of cash. They anticipate that next year’s budget will prove far more challenging, with federal stimulus money slated to dry up after pumping $15 billion into Florida the past three years – including $2.3 billion tucked into the 2010-11 spending plan.

“It’s a lean year, without a doubt,” said Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

But just as they bulked up Everglades spending with the anticipation of FMAP money, lawmakers also agreed to reduce a planned 7 percent cut in state payments to nursing homes by 2 percent, again if the Washington windfall arrives.

In a weekend of negotiations leading up to Monday’s late-night conclusion, lawmakers had agreed to a host of spending reductions, including 7 percent reductions in state payments to hospitals and nursing homes, and a $12 million reduction in the Healthy Families program for low-income pregnant women and children.

Healthy Families also received a slight budget reprieve Monday night – with a late-hour $2 million injection of cash.

As midnight approached, projects in Rivera’s home Miami-Dade County suddenly drew state financing. Among them, $150,000 for emergency generators in tony Golden Beach; $1.7 million for a Little Havana adult day care and senior center; $250,000 for senior meals in Hialeah at three adult centers; and $500,000 for a Democracy Conference at Florida International University.

Other spending provisions in Central Florida, home of Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, also drew some late-night largesse – with budget-writers steering $400,000 to the University of Central Florida’s Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government and UCF also getting $90,000 for a state university research partnership.

While much of Monday night’s maneuvering appeared aimed at satisfying the demands of top lawmakers, budget-writers in earlier negotiations also found $14.4 million for mental health and substance-abuse programs around the state. They also shielded rural hospitals and two children’s hospitals in Miami and St. Petersburg from the Medicaid rate reductions other hospitals will absorb.

Leading up to Monday night’s close of talks, a state worker package was rolled out that – while providing no pay raise for the fifth consecutive year – avoided a proposed 3 percent personnel reduction sought earlier by the House.

Also dodged were wide-ranging layoffs and a proposal that had gained traction in the Senate to make public employees contribute to the state’s pension plan, which is facing a multi-billion dollar deficit.

The only significant state worker change involved a requirement that some 27,000 mid-level managers and state lawmakers for the first time pay a modest amount for health coverage -- $100 annually for single coverage and $360 annually for family insurance. State lawmakers also agreed to maintain their salaries at their current level.

Some of the state spending was eased when lawmakers over the weekend agreed to pull $507 million from 33 state agency trust funds to help plug budget holes. The Senate had earlier resisted such deep tapping of trust fund accounts, but the approach became certain after the additional federal Medicaid dollars failed to appear in time to supplement the budget.

The most controversial shift may have been the Senate’s concession to a House push to redirect cash from the state’s transportation trust fund – with $160 million pulled from an account which only a year ago was touted as a source for road resurfacing and construction projects expected to yield jobs in the recession. Industry advocates warn the move will delay projects and could cost thousands of jobs.

The Senate also agreed to another House issue – supporting a one-year budget prohibition on some stem-cell research at state universities. Rivera had said the ban was “very important to the House.”

The Senate went along with another Rivera-backed measure that bans state-sanctioned travel to a country considered a “sponsor of terrorism,” a move similar to legislation he sponsored several years ago that banned university travel to Cuba.

Indeed, while larger issues divided the House and Senate, some of the incremental budget steps seemed driven by matters close to Alexander and Rivera. State dollars for construction projects at three county health departments – headed by a $6.9 million allocation for Alexander’s home Polk County unit – was settled only after $1.5 million was added for work at a public health agency in Rivera’s home Miami-Dade County.

House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, and Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, stayed away from the end-game negotiations. But when Alexander and Rivera completed their work, Cretul praised the spending plan for meeting the House’s principles.

“We accomplished this in a process more open than ever before,” Cretul said. “As a result, Florida is well-poised for job-creation and the return to a more prosperous economy.”

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