With lawmakers set to reconvene Tuesday for a one-day organization session, Democrats remain mired in deep minority status in the state House and Senate.
Budget cuts are on the table for the coming year, along with possibly major changes in education and health care policy.
But Democrats, who dominate the Palm Beach County delegation in Tallahassee, can’t do much to affect policies advanced by ruling Republicans, including Senate President-designate Joe Negron, R-Stuart, whose district includes a piece of north county.
“Our voice is all we really have,” said House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa.
The budget is poised to be distributed to lawmakers Tuesday. Florida’s constitutionally required 72-hour waiting period would then begin, allowing for a final budget vote on Friday, the final scheduled day of the two-month session.
While Senate budget chief Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and his House counterpart, Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, said they were intent on holding down late-hour budget additions, more than $100 million in new spending was still used to settle the deal.
“It’s not just what goes…in the budget. It’s what you keep out of the budget,” Lee said of the agreement.
Added was $48 million for the state’s Best and Brightest program, aimed at providing pay raises of as much as $10,000 to teachers who earn a “highly effective” in their job-performance evaluations and who had scored among the top 20 percent in their SAT or ACT college admission tests.
The program is a priority of the House, although the state’s largest teacher union, the Florida Education Association, is suing alleging the requirements discriminate against teachers on age, race and cultural issues.
Another $24 million was added to the state’s Agency for Persons with Disabilities, a priority of Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.
Palm Beach County also scooped up new spending.
Close to $1.5 million was added for the West Tech Training Center in Belle Glade; another $1 million for water pipes in the Glades; and $225,000 for Palm Beach Habilitation Center in Lake Worth, which absorbed a budget cut last year of that amount. Another $500,000 was poured in for restoration work on the Lake Worth Lagoon, bringing the state total to $2 million.
House Budget Chair Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and his Senate counterpart, Tom Lee, R-Brandon, agreed to $713.5 million in education building and maintenance projects, which contained PBSC’s money and $3 million for Florida Atlantic University’s Jupiter life sciences building.
The PBSC funding has been included three times in earlier years, but vetoed by Florida governors, including twice by Gov. Rick Scott. But after getting $6 million to launch classroom construction on the campus two years ago, school officials say they are optimistic that this year’s funding will dodge Scott’s veto pen.
There’s risk, however.
Lawmakers have agreed to finance the school, college and university construction, in part, through issuing state bonds – borrowing that Scott has opposed throughout the five years of his administration.
“I’m not uncorking the champagne on any of these things yet,” said Todd Bonlarron, the county’s lobbyist. “There’s plenty of work to do even after the Legislature adjourns.”
House and Senate budget negotiators — working on finishing up an $80 billion state spending plan — agreed to $2,000 pay hikes for about 600 forestry firefighters, the identical amount approved last year but vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.
The pay hikes steer clear, however, of providing any pay raises for most of the state’s 98,000 employees, who last pulled in a 3 percent raise in 2006.
In 2011, employees were forced to direct 3 percent of their pay toward pension costs and two years ago lawmakers approved increases of $1,400 for workers making under $40,000 a year and $1,000 for those making more, to soften the pension demand.
Forestry firefighters earn an average pay of about $27,000. In vetoing an increase last year, Scott said pay raises should be handed out on a statewide basis, although he allowed another FHP raise to go through.
Scott had outlined a $1 billion tax-cut plan that would kick-in over two years. The bulk of the reductions — $770 million — permanently erased the corporate income tax paid by retailers and manufacturers, a move the governor said was going to fire the state’s economy.
Scott also wanted $250 million in economic incentives. But lawmakers have kissed off that Scott priority, too.
Senate budget chief Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he hasn’t spoken with Scott since he and his House counterpart, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, delivered the bad news on his wish list in a Friday evening meeting.
For his part, Scott hasn’t said much publicly, although most around the Capitol expect retaliation in the form of massive vetoes in coming weeks.
Only last week he insisted there was “plenty of money” in the state budget to do his $1 billion plan.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said he had a recent discussion with the governor.
“I talked to the governor on the phone, just briefly,” Crisafulli said. “I’ve always talked to the governor whether we’ve agreed on something or not.”
Crisafulli added, “Certainly, he’s not happy about it. But there’s a reality to all of it.”
Legislative leaders said that when state economists downsized revenue forecasts by $400 million in January, that effectively took Scott’s ambitious tax-cut plan off the table.
The House did come up with an almost $1 billion package of shorter term tax cuts after the revenue numbers changed — but that move seems lost in the fast-moving effort underway now to finalize a state budget deal.
The $400 million tax cut package still alive gets even narrower with House and Senate negotiators including in it $290 million in state funds used to reduce the state’s required property tax rate for schools by 5 percent.
The reduction may save homeowners and businesses some money in the coming year.
But that leaves only $110 million still to be parceled out by Lee and Corcoran. Those cuts are likely to include some sales-tax holidays and, maybe, a Scott priority — the permanent elimination of the sales tax manufacturers pay for equipment purchases, a reduction of $73 million.
“We’re focused now on the long range fiscal outlook of our state,” Lee said.
The final installment of $7.3 million needed to move the moldy Fourth District Court of Appeal courthouse to downtown West Palm Beach appeared set Saturday in an early and easy budget deal between House and Senate negotiators.
The agreement emerged as House and Senate conferees began work on crafting a new spending plan for the year beginning July 1. House budget chief Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has been generally cool to the big courthouse move, but it was his side that quickly endorsed the Senate’s pitch for funding.
The 4th DCA hears appeals from Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, and Okeechobee Counties. It’s looking to relocate from Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard in West Palm Beach to a new building planned between Clematis Street and Datura Street, east of Tamarind Avenue.
Senate President-designate Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has been championing the project and had tucked about $6 million in the Senate budget for the courthouse move. But the project had been ignored by the House in its roughly $80 billion budget blueprint.
After a larger-than-expected $12 million was set-aside last year, county and court officials had been banking on the final round being eased by Negron’s expanding influence as an incoming Senate boss. Saturday’s swift action may have affirmed that.
An extreme mold infestation forced the courthouse’s closure for a while in 2013 and the facility — built in 1970 — is widely seen as more vintage Perry Mason than ready for the Law & Order era.
A measure aimed at asking voters to impose two-term limits on Florida Supreme Court justices and appellate judges cleared the House Wednesday — but faces a likely dead end in the Senate.
The legislation (HJR 197) was approved 76-38. It would put before voters next November a proposal capping at two the number of six-year terms the higher court jurists could serve.
The measure is a priority of House Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who unveiled the signature proposal when he was elected next leader in September.
Democrats teed off on the proposal Wednesday — arguing that it was largely payback from ruling Republicans, angered by courts which have overturned legislation involving pensions, abortion, redistricting and other issues.
“You really have to wonder what this is about,” said Rep. Jose Rodriguez, D-Miami. “And for many of us, this has a flavor of retribution.”
But supporters said the move simply would bring term limits to a third branch of government — similar to standards already imposed on legislators and the state’s executive officers.
“We are not deciding to put term limits on judges,” said Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora. “We’re deciding to put it on the ballot so 20 million Floridians can decide.”
While a priority for the House, Republican leaders in the Florida Senate have shown no interest in the measure. Unless some heavy dealmaking unfolds in the Legislature’s closing weeks, the term limits proposal is likely to fade away.