Florida Lawmakers Pass $1.1 Billion Budget Cut, Tuition Increase

TALLAHASSEE Fla.

Florida’s budget could shrink by about $1.1 billion and college students may pay higher tuition due to legislation passed Friday in response to a shortfall in tax revenue blamed mainly on a housing slump.

A compromise budget-cutting bill cleared the House 72-39 and the Senate 23-9 to close out the Legislature’s third special session of the year. About 10 minutes later lawmakers reconvened in a fourth special session to deal with property tax relief.

The cuts to Florida’s $71 billion budget passed on straight party line votes in both chambers Republicans for and Democrats against and now goes to Gov. Charlie Crist.

The bill (SB 2C) includes a 5 percent tuition increase for community college and state university students $55 per semester for a standard course load starting in January. Crist vetoed a 5 percent tuition increase earlier this year but now says he’s keeping an open mind.

Majority Republicans argued most of the cuts were just reductions in spending increases the Legislature approved when it passed the original budget.

“It’s an adjustment; it’s not cuts,” said House Policy and Budget Chairman Ray Sansom, R-Destin. “We are not cutting education.”

He said public schools still are getting 5 percent more than the last budget year, which ended June 30. That’s $355 more per student, but about $100 less than in the original budget.

Democrats complained GOP leaders refused to consider repealing recent tax cuts they said favor businesses and the wealthy, increasing user fees or other ways to boost revenue to avoid some of the cuts.

“There’s still pain in this budget,” said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller, of Cooper City. “We’re still cutting a couple hundred million dollars out of education, we’re still cutting money to hospitals, nursing homes.”

Democrats also predicted lawmakers will need to make revisions again in just a few months because they did little or nothing to stimulate Florida’s economy.

“This legislature has balanced corporate tax giveaways on the backs of our school children,” House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber, of Miami Beach, said in a statement. “There are close to a million children lacking health insurance in our state and Florida has the worst high school graduation rate in the nation for three consecutive years.”

House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, issued a statement saying Republicans “stood by the principle that if the people of Florida have less money to spend, government should spend less too.”

In the House, some Democrats also criticized the tuition increase.

“We’re raising tuition making it more unaffordable for working families in Florida to send their children to college,” said Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee.

Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, responded that Florida’s tuition rate is the nation’s lowest while the state spends more on higher education than most others.

“We must have adequate tuition to be able to globally compete,” she said.

Richardson also spoke against a conforming bill (SB 8C) that would make the increase permanent and then require automatic annual increases linked to inflation, which has been running at about 3 percent.

It passed 95-17 in the House and 31-2 in the Senate, where both no votes were cast by Republicans.

The measure also would allow university boards of trustees to add a fee to pay for computers and other technology of up to 5 percent of tuition starting in the 2009-10 school year.

Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican, joined Democrats in opposing another conforming bill (SB 24C) that would permanently cut $20 million from $100 million annually allocated through a trust fund for water quality and quantity projects. The main budget bill would make the cut only for this year. The bill passed 22-11 in the Senate and 71-42 in the House.

“Not very few months ago May this state was on fire,” Dockery said. “We had wildfires all over the state. This state is in drought condition. I know we have tough choices to make, but water is not just a nice thing to fund. Water is vital.”

Senate Fiscal Policy Chairwoman Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, said other parts of the budget such as education and health care would have to take bigger cuts if the water program is spared.

“We all had to make some tough decisions when you’re cutting $1 billion out of the budget” Carlton said. “We all have to squeeze and pinch.”

Associated Press writer David Royse contributed to this report.

–Associated Press



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