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House, Senate Agree On Projects As Budget Vote Nears

Jenn Greiving
Wikimedia Commons

TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — House and Senate budget writers agreed to hundreds of millions of dollars in projects Monday, finishing the tug-of-war over numbers in the spending plan for the year that begins July 1.
Negotiators still need to hammer out some details, including the fine print of the budget and legislation that would bring state law into line with parts of the spending plan. But no major snags were expected on either front, paving the way for an on-time end to the legislative session Friday.

While lawmakers have not yet released the grand total for the spending plan, it is expected to weigh in around $75 billion.

Negotiators led by Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, agreed to a list of education construction projects totaling $499.1 million, including more than $174.6 million to maintain public schools, colleges and universities. Charter schools would get $50 million of that funding, while other public K-12 schools would get $50 million.

The deal also includes $10 million for a new building at the Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering, even though the budget calls for the university system's Board of Governors to decide whether to divide the joint program by March 1.

Lawmakers poured $86.1 million into water projects, including additional money for projects around the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee areas. In all, the spending plans approved by lawmakers would devote almost $232 million over the next three years to Everglades-related projects in those areas.

Polluted runoff from Lake Okeechobee into nearby waterways has been a major issue during the past year on the state's Treasure Coast, which includes Negron's hometown of Stuart.

But Negron brushed off suggestions that his priorities had crowded out other needs, pointing out that the environmental budget included tens of millions more dollars for items like springs, and that water released from Lake Okeechobee also affects areas like Southwest Florida.

"I think it's a balanced budget that addresses a lot of the needs in Florida," Negron said. "And it's not just southeast Florida that's affected by the discharges."

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, also defended $7 million for his alma mater, private Jacksonville University, after lawmakers agreed to that funding Sunday. Weatherford pointed out that other private universities often receive help from the state.

"I don't know what Jacksonville has done in the past or what the state has done with Jacksonville in the past. But I will say it's a great institution. They've got a project there that will have significant regional and potentially statewide impact," he said.

All of the projects are far from set in stone. Even with the deal in place on the spending, the veto pen of Gov. Rick Scott looms.

"Everything that you put in the budget, you have to be willing to defend in the governor's office," Weatherford said. "But this has been a very fiscally responsible year. ... But at the same time, there are some needs in the state and we're trying to focus on those."

The legislative session is scheduled to end Friday, and lawmakers are required to wait 72 hours before voting on the completed budget. That means the budget must be finished Tuesday or the session would be sent into overtime.

--- News Service of Florida senior writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.