Senate budget passes committee, setting up final clashes

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The final draft of the Senate? spending plan for the coming fiscal year easily passed the Senate Budget Committee on Thursday, setting the stage for a clash with the House over how to craft a spending blueprint hammered by the end of federal stimulus dollars and an anemic economic recovery, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

The measure passed on a 16-4 vote. Two Democrats — Sens. Bill Montford of Tallahassee and Gary Siplin of Orlando — joined Republicans in approving the measure. The House passed its version Wednesday evening on a 15-8 party line vote.

The nearly $69.8 billion plan reduces public education spending by almost 7.4 percent, shrinks Bright Futures scholarships by $1,000 per student because of an offsetting tax credit and slashes Medicaid rates for providers from hospitals to nursing homes. Supporters say the measures are needed to avoid a tax increase as the state closes a $3.75 billion budget shortfall.

? wish the decisions were simpler and easier,?said Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

But Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, blasted the plan for failing to ?eet the basic needs of the people?and refusing to look at potential revenue sources, including tax exemptions for special interests.

? believe there are Floridians that are not sharing in the pain,?Rich said.

As in the House, an amendment to stop the privatization of some prisons was beaten back, making it a near-certainty that some prisons will be handed over to for-profit corporations. The Senate plan would privatize prisons over essentially the southern third of the state while a more modest House proposal would only address Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

?? not opposed to privatization,?said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, the head of Senate subcommittee that handles prison budgets and itself proposed contracting with private providers for inmate health care. ?hat I have great concerns about is turning over the public safety of this state to private corporations.?

Fasano also argued the privatization would be the most sweeping such plan in the nation and worried that around 5,000 prison guards and parole officers — whose jobs would also be privatized under the proposal — could be out of work.

But Alexander, who inserted the language into the budget crafted by Fasano? committee, said the move would save the state money. He also brushed aside concerns about the future of state employees.

?e believe the vast majority will be employed under a successful bidder,?he told reporters after the meeting.

The amendment splintered the usual partisan breakdowns on budget votes, with Sens. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, and Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, voting for Fasano? proposal and Democrat Siplin opposing it.

A handful of bills meant to bring state law into line with the spending plan remained to be passed Friday, including a bill dealing with health insurance for state workers and one ending an affordable-housing trust fund. The health insurance bill was abruptly postponed Thursday, and Alexander said he planned to soften a reduction in state subsidies for family members?premiums.

The votes Thursday brought into sharper focus the differences House and Senate negotiators will have to hammer out after each chamber approves its version of the spending plan. Lawmakers have moved quickly through the earlier stages of the budget process, but Alexander said that was likely to slow down soon enough.

? think that these issues are so profoundly difficult the Legislature to consider that, at the end of the day, although we?e theoretically perhaps a week ahead of schedule, I expect that we will exhaust that week coming to terms with these decisions,?he said.

Asked if he believed conference committee negotiations would be more difficult than usual, Alexander said: ? think that all aspects of this are going to be more difficult than anything I?e ever seen. This is a very challenging set of decisions for us to make.?

House Budget Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, said late Wednesday that she also expected a difficult conference process, given that the chambers?proposals are separated by nearly $3 billion.

?t? just going to be tough to try to reconcile our differences,?she said.

Among the potential pitfalls: Differences in the plans to reform state pensions; a plan by the Senate to bring water management districts under tighter legislative control; and the House? $330 million sweep of the State Transportation Trust Fund, a move that is regularly staunchly opposed by the Senate.

Grimsley signaled some hesitance about the water management district, and said she found it hard to see how the budget would balance without the trust fund sweep. ?ot with this much shortfall,?she 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.