Fla. House unveils $69.2 billion budget for coming year


Published: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 10:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 10:48 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Higher tuition for college students. State worker layoffs. Cuts to hospitals. Yet at the same time, boosts in funding for public schools as well as money to cover the state's popular back-to-school sales tax holiday.

Those details were included in a nearly $69.2 billion proposed spending plan for 2012, released by the Republican-controlled Florida House on Friday.

Heading into a crucial election year, the proposed budget on one hand embraces the push by Gov. Rick Scott to pump more money into education, but also rejects some of the extensive cuts in health care programs that he recommended.

Scott also proposed keeping tuition rates flat in the coming year, but legislators have instead recommended an 8 percent hike. That hike can go up to 15 percent under a law that lets universities charge above the rate legislators set each year.

House Speaker Dean Cannon called the initial House spending plan "intellectually honest" and said it did not rely on "phantom cuts" in order to balance the books. The House version of the budget is nearly $3 billion more than the one recommended by the governor last month.

That's not to say there aren't cuts included in the budget. The budget eliminates thousands of state jobs. While many of the positions are vacant, the House is still calling for the closing of driver license officers, a reduction in the number of probation officers and even the elimination of a handful of investigators who handle arson and consumer fraud cases.

Hospitals would be hit with a 7 percent cut in reimbursement rates for treating patients enrolled in Medicaid, the state and federal health care program for the poor.

The House also would limit some Medicaid services, such as the number of times a patient could visit an emergency room.

There also are proposed cuts to higher education programs.

"Our team has done a really good job of identifying responsible, tough choices," Cannon said.

House Democrats, noting cuts to community colleges and hospitals, appear unlikely to support the proposed budget when it comes up for votes in the next two weeks.

"They are robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West.

The release of the House budget is just the first step in what could be a protracted negotiation with the Senate.

The House is currently on a pace to pass its version of the budget by the second week of February, or about the midpoint of the session. So far there is no clear indication of when the Senate plans to release its proposed budget.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos has been skeptical about current economic projections and suggested that the Legislature may want to wait before passing the budget since it covers spending from July 2012 to June 2013.

Lawmakers started their annual session early this year in order to draw up new Congressional and legislative districts for the state.

The House budget calls for the state to boost its share of spending on public schools by more than $1 billion, but the increase will only result in a 2.27 percent per boost in per-student funding.

That's because the state is paying for 31,000 more students and helping cover money that local school districts are losing due to continued drops in local property taxes.

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