House, Senate committees OK budget plans

TALLAHASSEE — With arguments over everything from abortion to after-school programs, the House and Senate budget-writing committees approved competing spending plans for the year that begins July 1, setting up the endgame for the legislative session.

The House Appropriations Committee voted almost entirely along party lines, 18-7, to move forward with that chamber’s blueprint (PCB APC 16-01). Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, joined Republicans on the panel to approve the measure, while one Democrat who sounded supportive of the plan missed the vote.

The House committee vote came shortly after the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously supported its version of the budget (SPB 2500). The upper chamber’s budget process is frequently more bipartisan than the House’s.

Republican leaders were quick to tout the advantages of the plans: Record funding for public education, money set aside for sizable tax cuts, and spending on an array of projects. But Democrats attempted to poke holes in that narrative, questioning health-care staff cuts, a ban on funding for Planned Parenthood and an initiative to make after-school programs go through a competitive grant process.

Rep. Matt Hudson, the Naples Republican who chairs the House subcommittee that deals with health-care spending, defended the proposed staff cuts and ban on spending for Planned Parenthood contained in the House bill.

Hudson said the Florida Department of Health either still had vacancies or had never attempted to fill 16 percent of the positions that the Legislature had authorized for the agency. And he contrasted the funding that made its way to Planned Parenthood with the application process lawmakers go through to get projects funded in the budget.

“Nowhere along the line has Planned Parenthood, (a) submitted a form, and (b) nowhere along the line has the Legislature told the executive branch to contract with them either directly or indirectly,” Hudson told reporters after the committee meeting Wednesday.

But House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, blasted the move.

“It’s a politically-derived stunt they’re pulling against one non-profit organization who provides health care for women…To suggest it’s anything else is hogwash,” he said.

It wasn’t immediately clear how much funding was at stake. A spokeswoman for the Senate, which didn’t include the ban in its budget, said no state revenue went to Planned Parenthood, although a handful of county health departments used federal funds to contract with the organization.

Federal funds are not allowed to be used to cover abortions.

Perhaps the biggest debate in the Senate focused on an amendment proposed by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, which called for spending $7.5 million on expanding a water-storage project in Martin County. The project takes polluted water from Lake Okeechobee that otherwise could be discharged into rivers in Southeast and Southwest Florida.

Negron will become Senate president after the November elections, but his amendment was opposed by six other Senate Republican leaders. Some said they did not object to the project but did not like Negron’s proposal to shift $6.75 million of the money from a fund that pays for park facility improvements.

The amendment passed on an 11-6 vote.

Other issues that drew concerns from senators included a plan to revamp the way mentoring programs are funded and the possibility of continuing the “Best and Brightest” teachers program.

Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, questioned changing the way the after-school program funding is divvied up. She said that the Senate proposal would bump the spending on those initiatives from roughly $20 million to $30 million — meaning there was plenty of funding for the existing programs and some new ones.

“I haven’t been convinced that there’s a need for this gargantuan change at this point in time, and, as I stated initially, we have more money in this pot that exceeds the amount of appropriations that would be necessary to adequately fund the existing organizations and programs,” Joyner said.

But Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who chairs the Senate’s education funding committee, defended the proposal as a way to make sure that programs that work get the money. He also suggested that many of those criticizing the plan for potentially cutting after-school programs were being alarmist.

“I thought that only in Washington was a 50-percent increase viewed as a cut. But apparently it is in some quarters in Tallahassee,” Gaetz said.

Questions about the “Best and Brightest” program focused on the use of public school teachers’ scores on the ACT or SAT college-entrance exams to help determine which teachers get a bonus.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said those scores are an “input” and questioned whether lawmakers should look at teachers’ “output,” which would be their classroom effectiveness.

Gaetz said the proposed Senate budget does not include money for the Best and Brightest program as senators continue to consider bills related to the program.

“The question is, is it a predictor” of performance? Gaetz said.

The program, funded by the House, is one of several differences between the two chambers. The two also disagree on the House’s proposal to make nearly $1 billion in tax cuts and the Senate’s proposal to spend $250 million on economic-development incentives.

Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, has indicated the possibility of making $250 million in tax cuts. Lee also noted that state economists had cut revenue forecasts by about $400 million.

Lee said lawmakers would be “betting the farm” if they approved a high level of tax cuts.

And other issues could crop up. In the House committee, Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, withdrew an amendment that would have provided a 3 percent pay raise to all state employees while making it clear he wanted the issue addressed.

“But know that I will be knocking on your door, sleeping on your couch in the appropriations suite, to try and help get this done,” Williams said.