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Florida's annual budget battle kicks into gear in Tallahassee

Florida lawmakers began the annual tussle over spending at the Capitol Wednesday as House and Senate committees worked on competing budget proposals.

The two chambers’ bottom lines are similar but their priorities differ.

The Senate budget is $87.3 billion and the House’s is $87.2 billion. Both are more than $2 billion above current spending when anticipated expenditures through June 30 are added, including recovery costs from Hurricane Irma.

“Overall, our budgets line up well,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, the House’s budget chairman. He said a spike in spending is understandable in a fast-growing state of more than 20 million residents.

The House budget includes $230 million for programs recommended by a select hurricane preparedness committee, including beach and dune repair, a rental housing loan program and a study of expanding the Suncoast Parkway from Crystal River to the Georgia state line as a future hurricane evacuation route.

Senate spending on public schools relies on $434 million more in property tax payments from homeowners due to rising property values. The House considers that a tax hike and opposes it.

A flashpoint of disagreement is in higher education. Led by Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, senators want to spend nearly $400 million more on state universities, but the House wants to slash their budgets by $216 million.

Trujillo cited data from the 2017 session showing that universities’ budgets have grown in recent years at a faster rate than the rest of government.

The Senate wants to spend $150 million next year for Florida Forever, an open space preservation program that received no money in this year’s budget, angering its many champions. The House budget is for $8 million.

The House budget sweeps $397 million from single-purpose budget accounts known as trust funds, and the Senate would sweep $124 million. Democrats decried raids on two funds that build affordable housing.

“This is a race to the bottom,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando. He blasted the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott for raiding housing accounts “while Puerto Ricans are sleeping in their cars."