With Republicans controlling supermajorities in both chambers of the Florida Legislature, passing the budget should have been simple.
Instead, the Florida Senate passed a $69.7 billion budget on Friday in what was supposed to be the last hour of the last day of the regular session -- until things fell apart late Friday and early Saturday.
The budget passed the Senate on a 31-8 vote with three Democrats -- Jeremy Ring of Margate, Gwen Margolis of Miami and Gary Siplin of Orlando -- breaking with their party to back the budget.
The House passed the budget just before 2 a.m. Saturday on a 79-39 party-lines vote.
While the state faced a shortfall of almost $4 billion, the budget passed Friday was under $1 billion less than the $70.4 billion budget passed last year and almost $4 billion more than the $65.8 billion proposal Gov. Rick Scott unveiled at a tea party event in Eustis back in February.
While both sides passed the budget, the two chambers had severe differences and both the Senate and House agreed to extend the session until 6 p.m. Saturday.
House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West, said that personal rivalries and Republican factional fights sent the 2011 regular legislative session boiling over into extra time.
House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, ruffled some feathers in the Senate this session, as he forced the upper chamber to move his shakeup of the state Supreme Court through committee to the floor in order to move ahead with budget negotiations. Senators were averse to taking it up in the first place, and struck that provision of the courts bill before passing it. Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who clashed with Cannon in 2009 over the budget, consistently expressed displeasure with the House's negotiating tactics over the budget.
So when a budget deal was finally reached, according to Saunders, senators took the opportunity on the last day of session to "send a message" to the House.
"This is all messaging for next session, they're sending a message to Dean, 'Quit sending us stuff like the Supreme Court stuff, we told you we don't want to take it up, you're putting us in a position as Republicans,'" Saunders said.
The back and forth over the immigration bill, which Alexander helped to defeat earlier this week, also came into play, insisted Saunders.
"Immigration -- that's the tea party versus the business community -- it's all Republicans fighting. Democrats, we're saying, 'Hey, that's your problem.' They're sending messages back and forth and J.D. in particular, I think he was getting kind of tired of the speaker," Saunders said.
The end of session stalled after senators placed an amendment on an economic development conforming bill that expanded gambling, which many House Republicans did not want to vote on with the gambling provisions tacked on.
"And like I said, two-thirds of them down there (in the House) don't know any better. I think we need to send a lesson down there," said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, before the vote.
Hours before the late-night votes, in his weekly radio address, Scott declared victory on the budget.
During this legislative session, we have lowered taxes, streamlined government, and improved our education system. Florida is on the road to creating 700,000 private-sector jobs and turning our economy around, noted Scott on the radio. I promised during my campaign I would lower the property tax and phase out the business tax over the next seven years. In the first year we have phased out the business tax entirely for roughly half of those that paid it. That tax cut now frees up private-sector money for job creation and business expansion and makes Florida businesses more competitive.
We also delivered much-needed relief to homeowners by reducing property taxes by more than $200 million. I committed to making government more efficient and reducing wasteful spending. During this session we reorganized agency functions and optimized them for economic development, continued Scott. We eliminated the unnecessary red tape that slowed economic growth and we modernized our pension system. I promised to improve education, a vital component for personal success and for the success of the state. This spring we put our children first by passing the student success act, charter school and virtual school legislation that offer more choices for families.
I applaud the Senate and the House for taking these great first steps to move our state in the right direction, said Scott in closing. In the coming months, Ill begin putting these first pieces of my 7-7-7 plan into action. And together we can make the phrase Lets Get to Work! a reality for our great state.
Scott praised the leadership of both Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and Cannon in a speech he made after the session adjourned.
After tackling more than 40 conforming bills on Friday, the House engaged in a debate over the final budget.
Repeating the mantra that this was the toughest budget year in recent memory, Republicans said that a large amount of work went into crafting the budget without raising taxes.
I think this budget speaks volumes about the thoughtfulness that we went through in this process, said Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples.
We have balanced our budget, our constitutional duty, without raising taxes, said House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami..
Its been a challenging 60 days, said Incoming Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. We knew this day would come.
Nobody wants to reduce spending on education, continued Weatherford. Were not in the wants phase. Were in the needs phase.
Weatherford said he and the Republicans held the line on taxes by not raising them.
Democrats in the House took aim at the budget proposal, attacking it on several fronts, arguing that it cut too much from education and would not provide jobs in the private sector and cut too many from the public sector.
Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, said that more than 53,000 jobs would be lost due to the budget, pointing to Gov. Rick Scott rejecting federal funds for high-speed rail.
Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, called the budget a tea party trainwreck and insisted that the 2012 primaries, in which Haridopolos faces a potentially crowded Republican field to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, were directing some of the budget choices.
On the Senate side, Haridopolos touted the Medicaid reform, education reform and pension reform packages that passed, saying that normally each one of those issues would need a session unto themselves.
"We did all three, and we balanced the budget, with -- whatever the final number is -- the biggest shortfall that I've seen in my 11 years in the Legislature, with no stimulus money, he said.
Alexander maintained on Friday that the Legislature did all it could, as it had only $26 billion from general revenue to work with to make cuts.
"Although this has got to be one of the most difficult budgets in the history of Florida, I think it's one that people can take home," added Alexander, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "I think we have all struggled with some very difficult decisions, but I think at the end of the day we've taken care of the most vulnerable.
"The best thing the government can do to create jobs, as the governor has said, is to stay out of the way. I don't think we can create jobs, I think government kills jobs," added Alexander.
Other senators focused on other parts of the budget.
"We have funded (Medically Needy and Meds-Ad) at this year's levels," said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Health and Human Services Appropriations. Negron and the Senate had sought to cut those programs but the House held firm.
"We must look at what the whole picture is and in the proper perspective," said Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on PreK-12 Education Appropriations -- referring to the actual classroom cuts.
The overall reduction in per-pupil funding is $542 per student. The budget includes $6,268 in per-student funding, representing a 7.9 percent total cut in education funding. Much of those cuts come from the 3 percent contribution rate and the loss of $554 million in federal stimulus funds that school districts received last year. Districts were instructed not to spend the money, and most school districts --with the glaring exception of Broward County --did not spend their funds. Once those funds are accounted for, the classroom impacts of the cuts are much less.
"Insofar as actual dollars that go into the classroom, it's only a 1.25 percent (reduction)," Simmons said.
Democrats in the Senate offered some opposition to the budget despite three of them breaking ranks to back it.
"In all the time we've been here -- and some of the members of the Republican caucus have said this -- no jobs have been created and almost 5,000 jobs have been eliminated," said Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston.
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