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Florida House opens budget debate; Senate to follow Friday

The Florida House opened floor debate on the state's new $79 billion budget Thursday while senators adjourned for the day and will debate it Friday. This Tallahassee two-step gives both chambers and both parties time to amplify political talking points on The Florida Channel without having to compete for air time.

Passage of the budget will end a long, tense and sometimes ugly four months in Tallahassee, the result of sharp differences over health care policy between Republicans.

The House abruptly adjourned on April 28, prompting a lawsuit and a Supreme Court ruling that the shutdown was illegal. Gov. Rick Scott issued ominous warnings of a government shutdown if a budget wasn't adopted, and lawmakers had to delay work on the budget until the Obama administration outlined its planned cuts to the hospital payment system known as the low-income pool.

The 2015-2016 Florida budget includes $400 million in state tax money to shore up hospital charity care, $400 million in tax cuts and more money for schools, nearly $207 per student. But it is also laden with last-minute parochial projects and is the result of a laborious process conducted largely in secret.

House Democrats immediately zeroed in on the fact that much of the school funding increase that's being touted by Republicans as "historic" is on the backs of Florida homeowners who must contribute $426 million more in property taxes to support schools next year.

Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, said the $426 million cancels out the benefits of tax cuts on cell phone taxes, college textbooks and back-to-school holidays.

"To claim that the House is cutting taxes," Rodriguez said, "is not accurate. One way or the other, our constituents are paying."

In a highly scripted process, the only mystery remaining is how many lawmakers will vote against it. If the Legislature immediately sends the budget to Gov. Rick Scott, he will have a maximum of 11 days to act on it.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he "absolutely" expects Scott to use his line-item veto power to eliminate parochial projects that were added to the budget after 11 p.m. Monday -- literally at the eleventh hour -- with virtually no public discussion.  

"I've been through this," said Lee, who was first elected to the Senate in 1996 when Democrat Lawton Chiles was governor. "What I've learned over time is that there are vetoes of principle, and then there are vetoes that are merely a state of mind." 

Reminded that Scott called in senators one by one in the regular session and threatened to veto their projects if they didn't support his priorities, Lee said: "Well, I would hope that he wouldn't be vindictive."

The Capitol's current hurry-up-and-wait atmosphere is largely due to the requirement in the state Constitution that the budget must be available for public review for 72 hours before a vote, which cannot take place before 5:37 p.m. Friday.

The three-week special session is on track for a Friday evening adjournment and will end with the return of the traditional dropping of handkerchiefs by the sergeants at arms. It will be a farewell ceremony for long-time Senate Sergeant at Arms Donald Severance, who's retiring after a 39-year career.  

"We hope to have a Sine Die ceremony and a hanky drop. Sergeant, I will tell you, we're doing it for you," Gardiner told the popular Severance, who stood at the rear of the Senate chamber.

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