Legislature ends session, approves $83 billion budget

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Gary Fineout | The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE — After a contentious session that saw top Republicans snipe at one another and Gov. Rick Scott for more than two months, the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature finally called it quits Monday after approving a roughly $83 billion state budget.

The immediate question for legislators is whether or not their escape will be short-lived since Scott continues to hint that he may veto the budget and force the Legislature back into session between now and the end of June.

Scott has traveled across the state and railed against legislators for failing to include his top priorities — including money for business incentives and money for Florida’s tourism marketing agency — in the new budget. He was noticeably absent from the customary end-of-session celebration where top legislative leaders boasted about the work they had done during their 63 days at the state Capitol.

“There’s no question what we accomplished was bold, transformational and life-changing for Floridians,” House Speaker Richard Corcoran said.

The annual session was supposed to end last week, but legislative leaders didn’t reach an agreement on a new budget in time so they were forced to extend it by three days. State law requires the budget to be finished 72 hours before a final vote.

In the final frantic day, legislators approved a long line of budget-related bills, including a sweeping education bill that drew the scorn of many Democrats because it directs state money to charter schools. They also approved a measure that cuts funding to Visit Florida by two-thirds and imposes strict new restrictions on the agency. Legislators also voted for measure that expands college financial aid.

The total spending approved by legislators this year comes to roughly $83 billion and includes an across-the-board pay raise for state workers. Legislators last week approved an ambitious plan to build a reservoir system south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce harmful discharges that have been blamed for “guacamole-thick” muck in coastal waterways.

Scott has already said he plans to sign the Lake Okeechobee bill into law, but he has refrained from making promises about other high-priority bills including one shepherded by Corcoran on the final day that puts more than $400 million into charter schools and teacher bonuses.

The Legislature also rebuffed Scott on his pitch for a $600 million tax cut package, opting instead to pass a much smaller $180 million package that exempts tampons from sales taxes and creates two small sales tax holidays for later this year. If Scott signs the tax cut bill, there will be a three-day tax holiday in August when residents can purchase clothes tax-free. The legislation also calls for a three-day period in June where residents can purchase items such as batteries, flashlights and generators tax-free.

Unlike past years, there was limited debate on the budget. The House approved it by a 98-14 vote while the Senate voted for the budget 34-4. That’s enough of a margin to override Scott if he vetoes the budget.

Corcoran predicted that the Legislature has the vote to override a budget veto, while Senate President Joe Negron contended that Scott supports much of what was included in the budget.

“I think that all of us will spend some time over the next week to 10 days to make our case, and we have the burden of proof with the governor,” Negron said. “I’m optimistic the governor will recognize most of what’s contained in the budget are items that he supports.”

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