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Senate unanimously approves $74.3 billion budget

In an unexpected move Wednesday, the Senate unanimously approved its proposed $74.3 billion budget.

"It's a tribute to the bipartisanship that we've seen in the Senate during the budget process," Senate President Don Gaetz said.

The spending plan includes a $1.2 billion increase to public-school funding, $70 million for Everglades restoration and 3 percent across-the-board pay raises for state employees, many of whom haven't seen their salaries increased in six years. 

"I think that this budget takes care of the basics," Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron said. "Things that we haven't been able to take care of and respond to in the past, given the challenges in the economy, we're now taking those on. We're making sure that our foundation is strong and that we're not deferring issues that need to be addressed."

This year marks the first time Florida has seen a budget surplus in six years.

"Our revenues were much greater than in the past," Negron said. "But we did not go on a spending spree."

Senators made a handful of tweaks to the budget Wednesday. They added $1.7 million for the University of Florida Lastinger Center for Learning, about $475,000 for Barry University in Miami Shores, and $2.5 million for Florida Gulf Coast University's Renewable Energy Institute, among other last-minute additions.

The Senate also approved an amendment dealing with advanced nuclear cost recovery. The amendment calls on the Public Service Commission to complete a comprehensive review "of the continuing prudency, cost effectiveness and need of any proposed nuclear power plant" for which cost recovery was authorized and if the "currently anticipated inservice date for the plant has been extended more than six years beyond its original proposed inservice date and if the most recent estimate of the plant's total cost has increased by more than 50 percent of the original cost estimate for the plant."

Sound specific? Calling the amendment a "rifle shot," Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater said he wrote the amendment so it only applies to Progress Energy's beleaguered Levy County plant and not Florida Power and Light. Latvala said in a quick interview that he introduced the amendment to the budget bill because his legislation (SB 1472) on nuclear cost recovery isn't moving. The language was added to the budget on a voice vote.

Senators batted down other proposed changes, including a pitch from Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, to move $1.5 million out of the budget for charter school facilities. Bullard hoped to see the money rerouted to children's initiatives in Orange and Duval counties, he said. 

Sensing bipartisan support, Gaetz called for a final vote on the budget Wednesday. Observers were somewhat surprised; the vote wasn't expected until Thursday. 

Gaetz later praised Negron's leadership.

"Joe Negron proved that he can do what Washington can't," the Senate president said.

The Senate’s unanimous vote stands in stark contrast to what is happening in the House.

House Democrats on Tuesday decided that they won't support the budget when it comes up for a floor vote on Friday. The reason: House leaders have only begun to reveal the details of an alternative to Medicaid expansion. 

Because the Senate has proposed two actual alternatives to the Affordable Care Act’s proposed Medicaid expansion, Democrats in the upper chamber gladly signed on to the Senate’s $74.3 billion plan.

Democrats like both spending plans. For the first time in six years, state employees would get across-the-board pay hikes of 3 percent, while the House would offer $1,400 a year. The House and Senate plans both provide $1 billion more in education spending. (The Senate is providing a $372 increase per student while the House is providing a $395 hike.) In response to Gov. Rick Scott’s call for a $2,500 pay raise for every teacher, the Senate is including the total amount that would cost -- $480 million -- but stipulating that the money be tied to student performance. The House included $676 million for the raises, but is encouraging districts spend half of the money on teacher performance.

Gaetz said he believes the Senate is in a strong position to negotiate with the more divided House of Representatives.

"I do think that Chair Negron and his [subcommittee] chairs have strong hands in going into conference with the House of Representatives," he said. "They know that the entire Senate is behind them, and they also know the areas where they hope the Senate can make some progress in conference."