State House moves ahead with proposed budget


Published: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 11:32 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 11:32 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — A divided Florida House panel on Wednesday moved ahead with a bare-bones budget for the coming year that raises the cost of college in the state, eliminates thousands of state jobs and cuts health care programs.

The $69.2 billion budget also provides more money for the state’s public schools and sets aside money to pay for a sprinkling of tax cuts, including a small cut in the corporate income tax sought by Gov. Rick Scott. The House is also proposing a three-day back to school sales tax holiday in August.

“We have a balanced budget that funds the state priorities without raising taxes or fees,” said Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring and House budget chairman.

The human cost of the proposal, however, was on view when a group of Jefferson County residents pleaded with lawmakers to spare a state prison in the rural Panhandle county that has been targeted for closing by the Scott administration. The House budget relies on savings associated with the closings of several prisons, although the House is not backing a move to close a women’s prison in Hillsborough County recommended by the governor.

“I beg you, I implore you to help us,” said Kirk Reams, Jefferson County clerk of the court.

Democrats tried to change the budget to save the prison but their effort was defeated when nearly all Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee voted against the proposal. Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City and chairman of the House budget committee that oversees prisons, said the Democratic plan would throw his budget out of balance.

Lawmakers entered the session with a more than $1 billion budget shortfall and a desire to avoid tax hikes in order to fill the gap. The House budget relies on cuts across the budget to achieve that goal, including slashing money to higher education, closing prisons and cutting payments to hospitals and nursing homes. The budget also puts additional limits on Medicaid including putting a cap on the number of emergency room visits that adults can make in one year.

While the budget does calls for layoffs and prison closings, it keeps intact a perk for thousands of state employees who pay very little for health insurance. House members agreed to keep state employee health insurance premiums at their current levels even though the cost for state is expected to go up by nearly $50 million.

Most rank-and-file state workers pay $50 a month for individual coverage and $180 a month for family coverage. About 32,000 employees and state officials — including the governor and many legislators — pay $8.34 a month for individual coverage or $30 a month for family coverage. Many of these employees are among the highest paid in state government.

Grimsley defended the decision to keep premiums unchanged, noting that state workers have not gotten a pay raise in several years and last year they were asked to start paying part of their pension costs.

“We have done a lot to state employees the last few years,” Grimsley said.

Scott and his wife are enrolled in the state health insurance program and pay only $30 a month for coverage. The governor in his budget proposal recommended making all state workers pay the same amount for health insurance. He said Wednesday that he still planned to ask legislators to make the change even though it would raise premiums for some workers.

“The right thing is that we all should pay the same premium,” Scott said. “That’s what I believe should happen and I’ll be looking into it. No one likes anything to go up. I just want to be fair to everybody.”

Another place where the House and Scott do not agree is on college tuition. The House budget calls for an eight percent tuition hike for both colleges and state universities, although state universities have the power to raise tuition up to 15 percent without legislative approval.

Scott said this week that the state should keep tuition rates flat this year.

“We have to do what the private sector has done and what every family has done, tighten our belts,” he said. “Look at how we can save money. How do we reduce costs rather than raise tuition? You don’t think that way in business, you know, ‘gosh, it costs them more to do things so let me raise my prices.’”

Grimsley, however, contended that Scott lacks the power to block the tuition hike if it remains in the budget. She defended the hike, saying that college remains affordable in Florida and that the state’s tuition rates for in-state residents remain among the lowest in the country.

The budget does include more than $1 billion more for public schools that Scott was seeking. But the boost will only increase per-student funding by 2.27 percent. That’s because a big chunk of the extra money will help cover the cost of increased enrollment and cover the loss of local property taxes due to dropping property values.

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