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Fla. Legislature set to OK $77 billion budget

May 2, 2014
Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Flush with cash, Florida legislators planned to end their annual session by approving a record state budget that increases money for everything from child welfare to schools to cleaning up water pollution.

The Republican-controlled Legislature is expected to vote on the budget shortly before it ends the 60-day session Friday night.

The vote will close out a hectic final day that is expected to set the stage for a crucial election year when Gov. Rick Scott and most legislators will be on the ballot.

In the final hours, legislators approved a measure that would allow the sale of a strain of low-THC marijuana for medical use. They also voted to allow students living illegally in the country to qualify for in-state tuition rates for college. Both decisions were unthinkable in the last decade for many GOP lawmakers. Scott is expected to sign both.

"It's a great day for all of our students that want to live the American dream," Scott said shortly after the vote on the in-state tuition bill.

And in a turnabout from last year, the Legislature approved a bill that would allow professional sports teams to qualify for taxpayer money. A similar bill died during the 2013 session.

Legislators are also expected to approve the expansion of Florida's private school voucher program for low-income children. The Florida Senate approved the bill earlier in the day and sent it back to the House. A key question was whether or not House Republicans would accept new testing requirements for private schools included in the measure.

But a big focus on the last day was the money.

The state's economic recovery gave lawmakers the luxury of having a $1.2 billion budget surplus even after they had paid for school enrollment and other pressing needs such as growth in the state's Medicaid program.

Most of that surplus was set aside for $500 million in tax and fee cuts, including a rollback in auto registration fees that was signed into law earlier this spring by Scott. The rest of the tax cuts included a three-day back-to-school sales tax holiday in August, as well as tax holidays for hurricane preparation supplies and energy efficiency appliances.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, insisted that the Legislature was not "awash in cash." And House Speaker Will Weatherford said lawmakers had acted responsibly because they left roughly $3 billion aside for reserves while also cutting taxes.

"This has been a fiscally conservative year, but at the same time there are some needs in the state and we are trying to focus on them," Weatherford said.

But that didn't stop legislators from spreading millions to hometown projects ranging from $2 million to help build an observation tower in downtown Miami to money to expand a gun range in Brevard County.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, questioned some of the spending priorities, especially the continued resistance of GOP lawmakers to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage. The Legislature has refused to accept the money because it is tied to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

 
 

 

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