TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Flush with plenty of extra cash during an election year, the House and Senate on Thursday passed rival versions of a new state budget that spends more money on child protection, health care for the disabled and public schools.
But there remain key differences between the two chambers over everything from the role of state colleges and spending on school and college construction, to how much money to spend on environmental programs.
Unlike in years past, members of both parties voted for the budget, although several Democrats complained that neither the House nor the Senate version of the roughly $75 billion budget does enough to help all Floridians.
Most of their criticism was aimed at the decision by the Republican-controlled Legislature to refuse to draw down financial aid in order to expand Medicaid coverage, part of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. The House last year refused to consider expansion and the idea has gone nowhere this session.
"Some Floridians are being left out of the conversation," said Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami.
Top Republicans rebuffed those criticisms, pointing out that the budget boosts spending in many health care programs, including additional money to help the disabled and a program that provides services to keep the elderly out of nursing homes.
"The idea that our budget is ignoring people who are of limited means, or people who have challenges, that is not a characterization I think is accurate," said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and the Senate budget chief.
The House voted 100-16 in favor of a nearly $75.3 billion budget, while the Senate voted 37-2 for a spending plan that totals nearly $75 billion.
The vote sets the stage for a final round of negotiations over the next several weeks. State legislators have until early May to pass a final budget and send it to Gov. Rick Scott.
Florida legislators entered this session with a budget surplus of $1.2 billion even after setting aside money to cover Medicaid expenses and public school enrollment.
They are using part of the surplus on a tax cut package, including a nearly $400 million rollback of auto-registration fees that Scott signed into law earlier this week. Lawmakers may also enact other tax cuts, including a back-to-school sales tax holiday. The House on Thursday passed a wide-ranging tax-cut bill that includes four different tax holidays, among them a weeklong sales-tax break on gym memberships in September.
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