House, Senate Committees Approve Budget Bills

April 4, 2013

House and Senate committees approved competing $74 billion budget plans Wednesday — with the Senate panel easily approving the spending measure on a bipartisan vote while House Democrats stood against their chamber’s proposal in an objection to what it doesn’t do in health care.

The House measure (PCB APC 13-05) passed the House Appropriations Committee on a party-line vote, while the Senate budget (SB 7040) was approved unanimously by the Senate Appropriations Committee. Both panels also approved a variety of bills related to the spending plans.

Overhanging both meetings, though, was a common theme: the economic recovery slowly taking root in Florida has made budgeting far easier, replacing long committee meetings filled with arguments over deep cuts with relatively brief affairs when even members who voted against the plans praised the broad outlines.

“It’s good to have a little money again,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, after the Senate committee approved a slate of minor tweaks dealing with largely parochial concerns. “This is like the old days, doing these amendments.”

Or, as Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, put it while talking about the construction of the budget: “There’s nothing a little prosperity won’t help.”

The proposals for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, changed little from the outlines unveiled last week. The House and Senate have competing visions for how to structure pay raises for teachers and other state employees. The House sets aside about $2.4 billion in reserves, while the Senate would save $2.9 billion.

Instead, what caused a rift in the House Appropriations Committee between Republicans and Democrats was the failure of the plan to include a federally funded expansion of Medicaid to cover a broader swath of low-income Floridians. Both the House and the Senate have rejected the expansion, though the Senate is looking at an alternative that could tap federal money to pay for low-income Floridians to purchase private insurance.

“My main concern is not so much about what’s in the budget, it’s about what’s not in the budget,” said House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation.

Democrats concede that they like most of the House plan, including the raises for teachers and state employees, though they might differ on the details. But their support would come for a price — some assurance that the House would back an expansion of health care, even if it were something along the lines of the Republican Senate plan.

“If the House comes to the right position to take care of the medical needs of the Floridians who really need it, we’ll be more than happy to vote for the budget,” Thurston told reporters after the meeting. “We want to vote for the budget.”

Republicans blasted the Democratic opposition, saying that it was a partisan distraction in a budget year where Medicaid was fully funded and education is in line for large spending increases.

“We’re here to pass a budget and this, members, is a good budget,” said Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples.

House Majority Leader Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, issued a sharp statement following the meeting.

“This budget, which maximizes every dollar while responsibly planning for the future, warranted bipartisan support today,” Precourt said. “It is disappointing that House Democrats chose to focus on one area of disagreement in this budget rather than show their support for the numerous funding increases that they agree are needed in our state.”

By Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida

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