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Lawmakers: Budget That Passed was ‘Lean, Not Mean’

Lawmakers approved a $70.4 billion state budget Friday, ending a two-month, election-year legislative session shaped by a massive budget shortfall and the stunning defection of Gov. Charlie Crist from the Republican Party in his race to U.S. Senate.

In the House, the measure was approved 77-43, with most Democrats opposed. The Senate voted 33-4, setting the 2010-11 plan for the year beginning July 1.

But it was an uneven ending to the often combative session. The House adjourned at 6:59 p.m., with the Senate not calling sine die to the session until 8:47 p.m. Gov. Charlie Crist, who separated himself from the GOP on Thursday, didn’t make a public appearance on the Legislature’s final night.

For the fourth straight year, the budget was mostly about cuts. The spending plan includes just slightly more than an extra buck for a kid in a Florida classroom, while there are higher tuition rates for college and university students, and rate reductions for hospitals, nursing homes and hospices.

But such big-ticket programs as KidCare, Medically Needy, and Medicaid Aged and Disabled programs were sustained, while lawmakers also salted away at least $1.4 billion in reserves – bracing for what is certain to prove an even tougher financial picture next year when federal stimulus dollars are slated to end.

“The budget – it’s lean, but it’s not mean,” said Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey.

The spending plan buttoned-up Friday includes $2.3 billion in stimulus – the last installment of more than $15 billion in federal cash helping prop-up Florida the past three years.

Also helping lawmakers offset a $3.2 billion shortfall was $433 million from the Seminole gambling compact, a $507 million draw from agency trust funds, and $270 million from an anticipated extension of federal Medicaid spending.

“These are difficult times,” said Senate budget chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales. “The economy is likely to have a slow recovery. We can’t budget with blinders. We must consider the future, and this budget does that.”

Republicans in both the House and Senate united in praising the spending plan, saying that unlike last year, lawmakers cobbled it together without any tax or fee increases. Rep. Esteban Bovo, R-Hialeah, said lawmakers did what voters wanted this election year.

“We don’t have the ability to run to the ATM and take out cash without their permission,” Bovo said.

But Democrats didn’t like it, generally.

Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, said the budget misdirects federal aid and lawmakers were wrong to not consider means to expand the state’s tax base to pull in more revenue.

“We had a responsibility to prepare for next year, by looking at new resources,” Rich said.

Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, also criticized the spending blueprint for not looking ahead.

“We keep seeming to bale out water without plugging the holes,” Gelber said.

The budget vote and the conforming bills that go with it were the last act of the 2010 session. While the recession-damaged spending plan dominated much of the two-month session, it also will be remembered for some major mileposts.

Anticipation of Crist’s Thursday move to bolt the Republican Party to qualify for Senate as a no-party-affiliated candidate seemed to slack the wind in the Legislature for much of the session’s final week.

With Crist cutting himself free of party ties, the governor is unpredictable on both the budget and bills. He could choose to heavily apply his veto pen to the spending plan – in an attempt to both bolster state budget reserves and underscore his independence from a Legislature he could soon begin campaigning against as part of an establishment he now scorns.

Legislation approved Friday by lawmakers that would require women seeking abortions to be asked if they want to view a required ultrasound image was expected by many to be vetoed by a governor eager to burnish his credentials as a political moderate.

Crist’s split with the party may have proved a fitting metaphor for a session marked by surprising results.

For all the legislative anxiety over Medicaid – which will absorb about one-quarter of all state spending – lawmakers never got close to consensus on two widely divergent plans emerging from the House and Senate.

While both approaches relied heavily on steering low-income Floridians into managed care health plans, HMOs ended the session with no significant expansion – despite contributing heavily to the Florida Republican Party and Republican leaders political committees in the weeks leading up to the session.

Another storyline that took an unexpected twist – offshore oil-drilling.

House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, led a House council through hours of testimony mostly from industry experts on the prospect of lifting the state’s 20-year ban on drilling within state waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

The panel concluded its work with a report and a proposed bill for the 2011 Legislature, unveiled one week before an oil-rig off Louisiana exploded, triggering a massive spill that continued to threaten Florida’s coastline as the session ended.

On Friday, Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum, the frontrunner to succeed Crist as governor, suggested oil-drilling would not be part of the state’s future.

“Until technology advances, we must continue to be extraordinarily cautious with our consideration of any proposal that would further jeopardize our beaches and our environment for future generations,” McCollum said.

Another Republican-leaning interest, the insurance industry, saw the session end without any significant gains. The industry’s sought-after authority to raise premiums by as much as 20 percent without state approval faded early in the face of a Crist veto threat.

Despite Republican dominance in the Legislature, unions may have been among the session’s biggest winners. In what is likely the session’s most seismic moment, the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, gained a Crist veto of a bill abolishing teacher tenure. The veto became a prelude to his declaration of political independence.

The Democratic-allied American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) also dodged House-proposed pay cuts for state workers and the prospect of major layoffs. A proposal requiring public employees to contribute to their pension fund to stave off a looming deficit also was denied.

While state workers are forced to absorb a fifth straight year with no pay raises, one of the few organizations standing by Crist’s non-party candidacy, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, successfully got a roughly 10 percent pay raise included in the budget for Florida Game & Fish Commission officers.

The provision brings these law enforcement officers to the level of Florida Highway Patrol officers, with an annual starting salary of about $34,000, said David Murrell, a PBA lobbyist. It also looks veto-proof.

“We’re standing by Charlie,” Murrell said. “It’s going to be an interesting year.”

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