Florida Senate rolls out $70.7 billion budget

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The Senate Budget Committee unveiled late Friday a $70.7 billion budget plan and more than 20 conforming bills, a move that could once again stir discontent among a maverick group of senators who nearly derailed last year’s session, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

The measure unveiled by the Senate is about $1.5 billion larger than the $69.2 billion spending plan that the House approved Thursday. It also contains about 540 more positions than the House blueprint.

Some of the differences could stem from what the upper chamber’s early draft includes in the budget. But there are also real gaps between the two chambers. The Senate pledges almost $1.2 billion in increased state funding for education, eclipsing the House and Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to add just over $1 billion to the system. The upper chamber also slashes $400 million from universities, saying that the schools will be able to draw on their reserves for a year.

Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander said this week the differences weren’t going to be that difficult to overcome.

“I think we’re fairly close,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said Thursday. “Closer than perhaps in the past. … I don’t think we’re terribly far apart.”

There are also policy differences. The Senate would limit emergency room visits for Medicaid patients to six a year, half the limit included in House legislation. The upper chamber also doesn’t call for cutting off subsidies to former foster children at 21 — down from 23 — a part of the House measure.

In all, about two dozen additional “conforming bills” were unveiled with the budget, less than a year after a group of Republican senators rebelled against their chamber’s leadership and caused chaos on the last day of the session. The number of conforming bills this year is still smaller than those considered in 2011.

One of the measures included, though, would bolster one of Alexander’s pet projects by mandating that the University of South Florida Polytechnic more quickly become an independent school named Florida Polytechnic University. That measure would also provide $25 million to USF to aid with the transition — but the money would only be released to the existing university after certain steps toward independence had been certified by Florida Polytechnic. Alexander made clear Thursday that part of the reason the Polytechnic bill is going through is because he doubts the intentions of USF leadership, which has lobbied against the change.

“I have no confidence in the stewardship of USF based on their actions,” Alexander said.

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.