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House and Senate move closer on budget

NegronmckeelFlorida lawmakers continued to meet on Sunday to haggle over next year’s $75 billion budget, and showed signs they were close to some significant deals.

A big one is a 5 percent across-the-board increase the Florida House has proposed for the state’s law enforcement employees, including sworn officers of Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Highway Patrol, and special agents. It would cost about $11 million.The Senate makes no such increase for those employees.

On Sunday, the House held to its proposal, but added other employee categories that the Senate wanted for higher compensation and benefits, including those in the court system ($8 million increase), assistant state attorneys and assistant public defenders ($10.9 million) and assistant conflict counsels ($457,000).  

“Today, we picked up some Senate priorities," said House Appropriations Chair Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland. "Which we’re very comfortable with.”

No word on if the Senate will accept that offer, but at this stage, after an offer is made public, it’s assumed it will be accepted, especially if it accommodates the opposing chamber’s position.

“That’s usually a good sign,” said Matt Puckett, executive director of Florida Police Benevolent Association. “We’re really happy it’s in there and they are adding other categories to it. It’s a generous offer.”

One sticking point had been environmental projects. Senate Appropriations Chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart, had made funding for two projects in his district, Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee a top priority. But the House hadn’t offered a dime for either project.

That changed Sunday when the House matched the Senate’s proposal of $82 million.

“I appreciate the movement of the House toward our position,” said Negron on Sunday afternoon. “I still think there are some remaining issues we still need to work out, but we’ve come a long way.”

The House had proposed to spend $45 million on springs restoration. Florida has about 1,000 freshwater springs, but many are suffering from nitrate pollution. The Senate is offering $22.8 million. On Sunday, the House lowered its offer to $30 million. Meanwhile, the House nudged its offer on beach projects from $31.9 million to $35.5 million, inching it closer to the Senate’s $47 million offer.

On some prominent pet projects, both chambers seemed to come into agreement.

SkyRise Miami, a 1,000-foot-tall observation tower/amusement ride in downtown Miami, was originally offered $10 million in the House's budget. The lower chamber reduced that to $5 million last week. But the Senate offered only $2 million and only if developers could show that developers had locked down $400 million in private money. On Sunday, the House matched the Senate's offer.

The Senate, meanwhile, agreed to match the House’s request for $7 million for Jacksonville University, the alma mater of House Speaker Will Weatherford. The Senate reduced its offer of $10 million for the University of West Florida’s office of economic development and engagement, which is near Senate President Don Gaetz’s district, to $5 million. The House, as of early Sunday evening, hadn’t offered anything for the project.

Much of the K-12 education budget was settled last week.

Some details, however, were still being negotiated.

The two chambers continued to disagree over how to calculate the penalties for school districts that don't meet the Constitutionally mandated limits on class size. The House wants to reduce the penalty. The Senate does not.

The Senate made an offer to provide $18.4 million for "personal learning scholarship accounts," which could be used to reimburse parents of special-needs children for educational expenses. The House had yet to respond.

Also unresolved: which education projects would be receive dollars from the Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO, trust fund.

The two chambers have different methods of calculating the available PECO dollars. They also have different funding priorities. The House wants to direct $100 million to charter schools. The Senate says $50 million is enough.

"We're working through PECO, both the mechanics of PECO and the details of how we are going to do it," Negron said. "I think you'll see those offers forthcoming as we move through the schedule."