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House passes spending plan

The Florida House on Thursday passed its $69.2 billion budget proposal for 2012-13, putting the lower house far ahead of the Senate in the appropriations process. 

“This is a budget that meets the state’s needs, and only takes reductions where reductions can be withstood,” said Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

The final 79-38 vote, not surprisingly, fell along party lines. (Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, called the proposal half-witted, halfhearted “and one more half-word that I can’t say on the floor of the House.”)

Democrats were particularly critical of the plan for education spending, which adds $1.179 billion to public schools.

Rep. Martin Kiar, D-Davie, noted that the education budget was slashed by $1.3 billion last year. “We’re still not even made whole from what the cut was last year," Kiar said.

Democrats also took issue with an amendment that prohibits a select few school districts from closing schools without first slashing top administrative salaries. Opponents said the amendment was meant as a warning shot at the Seminole County school district, which recently tried to raise taxes and is now threatening to close several schools.

Republicans, however, saw it differently. 

“This Legislature has prioritized education,” said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami. “Anyone that says to the contrary is not reading this budget and not taking into account the economic realities of the state of Florida.”

The higher education spending plan was also controversial, both because it funds virtual learning programs and raises the GPA needed to renew Florida Bright Futures Scholarship awards.

“What we should be doing is making [Bright Futures] more needs based, so that those who can afford to pay for college pay for college,” said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg.

But Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami, called the higher education spending plan “responsible and focused.” 

“I’m particularly proud of the funding for our state’s new medical schools, UCF and FIU,” she added.

Members of the minority party ticked off concerns with other portions of the budget.

Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, spoke out against a measure to save on Medicaid costs by limiting emergency room visits for non-pregnant patients.

Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, eulogized cuts to minority health initiatives.

And Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Fort Lauderdale, slammed a plan to reduce services to young adults who have aged out of the foster care system.

In the end, however, the budget found overwhelming support from Republicans.

House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, acknowledged that the plan was not perfect.

“But it is right and it is just," he said.

Said Grimsley: “We have a balanced budget that funds that state’s priorities without increasing taxes or fees.”