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House, Senate Ready To Approve Budget Plans

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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – Lawmakers on both ends of the Capitol worked Wednesday to prepare spending plans for the budget year that begins July 1, with House members squabbling about funding for Planned Parenthood while senators readied a reduction in education property taxes.

Votes on the spending measures, expected Thursday, would clear the way for the annual negotiations between the House and Senate over a final budget, likely to weigh in somewhere around $80 billion.

In the House --- frequently the scene of the most heated discussions about the budget --- the Republican majority batted away amendments from Democrats that would have changed the basis for a bonus program for teachers and would have authorized the purchase of 153,000 acres of land in the Everglades.

But a major clash broke out over a provision in the budget that would bar any money from flowing to Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides abortion among its health-care services for women. No state revenue goes to Planned Parenthood, but a handful of county health departments have used federal funds to contract with the organization.

Federal funds are not allowed to be used to cover abortions.

Budget-writers remained guarded about their reasoning for the ban on funding for the organization. Despite repeated questions from Democrats about why the language was written into the budget, the chairman of the House's health funding committee simply repeated that the Legislature has the ability to ban the contracts if it wants.

"This is a matter of legislative authority," said Health Care Appropriations Chairman Matt Hudson, R-Naples. "We have a choice. ... Given the fact that we had never expressly said to fund them, when you see that happening, I think it's incumbent upon us as a Legislature to say, 'Hey, no, that's not what we want to do.' "

Democrats countered that the move was a partisan maneuver copied from Congress, which recently fought unsuccessfully to defund Planned Parenthood.

"I constantly hear how much better we are from the majority than Washington," said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs. "Apparently, we are no better than them."

The Senate debate was more measured, and a few tweaks were added.

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, proposed a far-reaching change that called for the state to issue bonds to inject $222 million into the Florida Forever land-acquisition program. Altman said the proposal would help the state buy land that will not be available in the future, at least in part because of development pressures.

"There's no downside to doing this,'' Altman said.

But the proposal was scuttled after Republican leaders ruled that it would violate budget guidelines by knocking the spending plan out of balance.

Much of the Senate discussion of the budget involved questions and answers about details of spending on education, health and justice-system programs.

Meanwhile, after weeks of signaling that they would try to counter the natural growth of education property taxes due to increasing real-estate values, Senate leaders prepared to unveil legislation that would use state funding to hold down homeowners' tax bills.

Those local property taxes, known as the "required local effort," are at the center of the budgets' much-touted record level of education funding. But senators have balked at what they call a de facto tax increase, especially given that Gov. Rick Scott has asked for $1 billion in cuts to other levies.

"As I look across the spectrum of tax relief that we're considering, I can't think of anything that is broader based and impacts more people currently living in this state than something like a reduction in the required local effort," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

The plan is scheduled to be rolled out at a committee meeting Thursday morning.

After the House's meeting Wednesday, Speaker Steve Crisafulli told reporters that he was open to the idea of including some easing of the required local effort in the tax package, as long as it was done in a way that would ensure\ the refund made it back to property owners.

"My rationale is, unless there's an impact on the millage or rolling that back someway somehow, then we better be writing checks back to individuals on property taxes, because local governments don't need to have windfall profits because that money's not coming to Tallahassee," said Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

The News Service of Florida's Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.


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