Florida House passed budget on broadly bipartisan vote

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The House overwhelmingly approved a $74.4 billion budget for the coming fiscal year on Friday, setting up negotiations with the Senate that could be eased by the brightest state revenue picture in years, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

The broadly bipartisan, 99-17 House vote was an anomaly after years of bitter fighting about how to cut budgets in a drearier economic climate. Just days after staking out a party-wide position against the spending plan — a position that was later lifted — 25 Democrats broke with their party leadership to support the measure.

One Republican, Rep. John Tobia of Melbourne Beach, voted against the budget.

For House leaders, it was a chance to join their Senate counterparts in crowing about a united chamber as they head into talks about the final blueprint for the budget year that begins July 1.

“It does show that the chairman and the Republican majority did work hard to try to make this budget one that was bipartisan, and we’re very proud of that,” House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said after Friday’s session as he stood next to Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.

House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, shrugged off the defections of more than half of his membership.

“When you have the highest budget you’ve had in the past six or seven years, that means there’s money to go around to our core constituents, as well as maybe projects that they think are important for the state of Florida,” Thurston said.

Republicans laid the groundwork for the bipartisan vote on Thursday, when they released an alternative to the optional Medicaid expansion contained in the federal Affordable Care Act. Democrats have generally dismissed the House GOP plan as inadequate, especially when compared to proposals by Gov. Rick Scott and the Senate, but said getting the House to reveal any plan was enough of a victory to drop a caucus position against the budget.

Thurston said House Republicans should not doubt his party’s resolve on pushing for a broader health-care plan.

“Simply because some people voted for the budget doesn’t mean that there’s any less of a united front when it comes to providing health care for the most-needy Floridians,” he said.

The focus will now swing to a series of meetings over the final three weeks of the annual session, as House and Senate negotiators will have to hammer out an agreement on a budget. Republican leaders anticipate being able to start those discussions as soon as next week, meaning that the final amounts for each portion of the budget would be set in the next few days.

“I don’t see a whole lot of stumbling blocks,” Weatherford said. “I think that we’re very close. If you look at the House and Senate budgets, it’s about as close as they’ve been in quite some time.”

There are some disagreements. For example, the Senate would set aside $480 million for increases in teacher pay, one of the big-ticket items in the spending plan and a top priority of Gov. Rick Scott; the House would add $676 million in education funding with a strong suggestion that it be used for teacher pay raises. Both chambers have their own formula for changing how hospitals are paid for care under Medicaid.

And neither side has decided how to spend all of the money set aside for tax cuts, including whether to eliminate the sales tax on manufacturing equipment, another one of Scott’s goals for this year. The governor used his weekly radio address to prod lawmakers on the proposal again.

“We need to level the playing field to compete for manufacturing jobs,” Scott said. “For Florida families to succeed, we must build up our manufacturing jobs in Florida.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.