THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 8, 2011 -
Lawmakers voted Thursday to approve budgets slicing education and health care, asking state employees to foot some of the bill for their own retirement and largely staying true to the GOP majority’s promise to avoid tax increases --- setting up budget negotiations and a potential showdown with new Gov. Rick Scott.
In the House, members voted for the spending plan along party lines, 78-39. The Senate margin was slightly more bipartisan, with almost half of the Democratic members present joining with Republicans on the 33-6 vote.
There are significant gaps to reconcile. On one key measure --- a plan to ask state employees to contribute to their own employment --- the House would require workers to kick in 3 percent of their income regardless of their earnings; the Senate plan would set different charges on different levels of income, ranging from 2 percent on the first $25,000 of pay to 6 percent on any pay above $50,000.
Other differences between the two chambers include the House’s plan to sweep $330 million from the State Transportation Trust Fund --- a seemingly annual battle with the Senate --- and an overall difference of more than $3 billion between the $66.5 billion House blueprint and the Senate’s $69.8 billion measure.
The Senate would also boost the cost of health insurance for some state employees, a proposal that Cannon voice caution about Thursday evening.
“Since I think both the House and Senate plan are fairly aggressive in changing the FRS and the pension side, we have to be very sensitive in what we do with health insurance,” he said.
Both Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said they expected to agree on budget allocations in time for conference committees to begin meeting late next week.
The negotiations could also prove to be a test of the relationship between Scott and the Republican Legislature. Scott declined to say this week whether he would veto a spending plan that doesn’t include his tax cuts.
“I try not to think about hypotheticals,” Scott said earlier this week. “I’m very comfortable that we’ll get it in there.”
But, aside from a Senate measure reducing the property tax rates charged by water management districts, few of Scott’s proposed reductions are in either chamber’s budget, dramatically reducing the chances that they will be included in the final spending blueprint.
But after Thursday’s session, Cannon wouldn’t take the option of tax cuts off the table.
“I think it’s extremely difficult, but I wouldn’t rule it in, I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said.
The arguments Thursday followed the well-worn lines of the budget debates over the last few years, as slouching state revenues have forced lawmakers to approve tax increases or reduce spending. Democrats slammed the budget for not including new revenues raised by hiking taxes or eliminating exemptions.
“We have not found the middle ground,” said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston. “We didn’t have to make these decisions. We could have made other decisions. We decided to cause unnecessary pain on a lot of vulnerable people in this state.”
But increased taxes, Republicans countered, would be precisely the wrong prescription as the state tries to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said there was a good reason the state wasn’t getting additional tax dollars from businesses or residents.
“They don’t have it!” he proclaimed at one point during the House debate. “ . . . The last thing we need to do is to ask them for more, more than they can do. And they’re asking us, ‘Do the best you can with what you have.’”
Democrats also continued to attack the pension changes, with the House minority going so far as asking for the measure to be considered an income tax increase.
“A vote on this bill will always be remember by some, if not many, as a vote on the first income tax in our state’s history,” said Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West.
Republicans responded that the cuts were necessary, and that state employees were simply being asked to do what has become commonplace in other states and the private sector.
“We’re not balancing the budget on the backs of anyone,” said Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland. “We’re balancing the budget.”