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In budget debate, House Democrats stand down

Despite promises of a showdown, there won’t be much debate Friday between Democrats and Republicans over the proposed $74.4 billion spending plan.

Democratic leaders met with Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford before Friday’s floor vote and told him that only Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, would debate the budget.

“That’s quite a departure,” said Weatherford, who has made including Democrats in the budgetary process one of his top priorities as Speaker. In recent years, Democrats would spend hours hashing out their differences before a vote, a contrast that Weatherford’s office wants to spotlight.

Friday’s limited debate didn’t mean Democrats necessarily will vote for the budget. But it does show how divided they are on how much the Affordable Care Act should influence their vote on the House’s budget.

Thurston said Democrats decided to limit debate to ensure that the party was delivering a unified message that opposed the budget.

“It’s the best way to talk about the budget,” he said. “We’re unified as a caucus and we’ll have one strong message going forward.”

During a Democratic caucus meeting Friday morning, Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach told party members that he personally was voting against it and they should do too, if they felt that way.

But after Republicans released a health care plan that would provide additional coverage for about 130,000 uninsured Floridians, House Democratic leaders lifted a plan to oppose the budget en masse as a 44-member bloc.

That allowed Democrats like Alan Williams of Tallahassee, who has been in close contact with Weatherford throughout session, to vote for the budget. There’s much in there for Democrats to like, such as $1 billion extra in education funding, $300 million restored to higher education, $1.2 billion more on transportation projects that will surely provide jobs in their districts.

Williams didn’t like a vote Thursday that reduced a planned raise for state employees from $1,400 across-the-board to $1,000, with a $400 bonus for merit. But he said by voting on the budget, it gave Democrats leverage on the budget for the remainder of session.

With Democrats pinning their hopes on the conferences between the House and Senate as smoothing over differences, there was just no good reason to make such a fuss Friday, said Rep. James Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.

“We looked at it and decided there is no reason to fawn all over the budget,” Waldman said Friday. “With the largest budget in the state of Florida, there’s a lot of good things here. We didn’t look at (the lack of debate) as an olive branch. We said, let’s move on and get to conference.”

-- Mary Ellen Klas contributed