After two days of negotiation, a final budget deal nears

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As of Sunday night, the Florida House and Senate may be close to agreeing on a nearly $75 million budget, giving hope to the possibility a final spending plan will be ready for Tuesday’s deadline.

Appropriations Chairs Sen. Joe Negron and Rep. Seth McKeel spent the weekend locking down a majority of the budget, which includes per-student increases of 2.6 percent for public education and funding for Everglades protection with projects in Lake Okeechobee and Indian River Lagoon.

“I feel like it’s a really strong budget and we can be proud,” Negron told Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

While Negron and McKeel are close to full agreement, they are not all the way there.

Still undecided are spending plans for education construction, as well as a group of water projects attached to some of the larger items.

Two days of budget talks, seemed at one point to be at a standstill. Negron and McKeel failed to meet Saturday, and only got together once Sunday, but the evening session where they announced the deals gave hope that the lawmakers could finish the budget in time to be on lawmakers’ desks on Tuesday.

Since the legislative session will end on Friday, lawmakers have to have the budget ready for Tuesday so it can wait the required 72 hours before it comes to a vote. No finished budget means the session would go into overtime.

Another highly anticipated budget item was $500,000 for a study into splitting the joint College of Engineering operated by Florida A&M University and Florida State University. The lawmakers shelved the original Senate’s proposal of $3 million to create an independent FSU engineering school.

“We got a more accurate number in the interim,” McKeel said, adding that the initial estimates for the study was $150,000.

Once the study is completed, it will be up to the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s 12 universities, to decide on breaking up the college. The panel was given a target date of March 1, 2015.

Three options face the FSU/FAMU engineering programs: setting up “an independent College of Engineering at one or each of the universities,” offering “differentiated engineering programs” at both FSU and FAMU or keeping things as they are.

Negron told the News Service that the new proposal follows comments about the engineering school split made by House Speaker Will Weatherford last week.

“The speaker had advocated for involving the Board of Governors in that decision, so I think where we are moves us in that direction,” said Negron.

With its own engineering school, supporters say FSU can move up to become one of the elite public universities. The motion was also a priority of Senate Rules Chair John Thrasher, and FSU alumnus who is a leading contender to become president of the university.

Thrasher said on Sunday he was satisfied with the call for a study.

“I think the money that we had in the budget obviously got the conversation started,” he added.

Talk of separating the two colleges sparked outrage at FAMU, where administrators and alumni evoked the closing of the university’s law school in the 1960s, while a similar school opened at FSU. Florida A&M pushed through legislation opening its law school in 2000.

The House agreed to money for the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee projects, and both chambers agreed to nearly $96 million included in the Senate plan but left out from the House budget.

Pollution running from Lake Okeechobee into nearby waterways was a top priority for lawmakers from the Treasure Coast, including Negron, who represents Stuart.

Also slated to receive $2 million in public transportation improvements is Skyrise Miami, the proposed 1,000-foot mixed use business and amusement tower that would dominate Miami’s skyline. Originally, Senators resisted the original $10 million asked for the project, saying the line item was too vague.