St. Petersburg Times staff
TALLAHASSEE - Consumers will get temporary relief at the gas
pump and the cash register this summer as part of a deal lawmakers
struck Tuesday on a $58-billion state budget.
But the compromise means a popular sales tax holiday and
gasoline tax cut will be smaller than lawmakers planned.
It's the first time in three years lawmakers have approved
the popular sales tax holiday, which will run July 24-Aug.
1 and apply to school supplies and clothing worth less than
$50. Lawmakers had proposed the tax holiday for purchases
up to $100.
The House wanted the gas tax cut but the Senate was reluctant
because of concerns that the savings would not reach consumers.
But Attorney General Charlie Crist will be empowered to prosecute
retailers or wholesalers who do not reduce prices.
The budget deal means millions more for Hillsborough and
Pasco schools because of a new funding formula that threatened
passage of the budget.
South Florida school districts will lose millions of dollars
because of the new formula, but not as much as the Senate
has proposed. The smaller tax holiday and gasoline tax break
allowed lawmakers to lessen the impact.
"I am happy to report that the eagle has landed,"
Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said in announcing
the deal. "It is over for the budget."
It will be the first time since 2001 that lawmakers have
finished the budget without a special session.
Gov. Jeb Bush praised the agreement, saying he provided "just
enough" pressure to help shepherd it through. "I
really appreciate the compromise that was reached," Bush
House members applauded the compromise on school funding.
"It really is a great day in the state of Florida when
we can pull together the House," said Speaker Johnnie
Byrd, R-Plant City.
Lawmakers can debate the budget over the next three days
but cannot vote on it until 7 p.m. Friday because of a 72-hour
cooling off period to allow the public time to review it.
The election-year budget does not raise taxes, unless the
House agrees to a Senate proposal to increase the tobacco
tax on off-brand cigarettes.
But it includes higher tuition at community colleges and
universities and it shifts millions of dollars from trust
funds for general use. It also boosts some fees and fines.
Court fines and fees will increase, as the state assumes
more of the cost to run the courts starting July 1. Divorces
would cost $55 instead of $18, raising $2.5 million for domestic
violence shelters. Traffic fines will go up by $15. Higher
court recording fees will generate $104 million.
What began as a philosophical showdown between the House
and Senate over raided trust funds and other one-time sources
of money culminated in a compromise that spared many of the
social service programs senators threatened to cut to balance
The state will spend about $22-billion on social services
programs. The Medically Needy program, which serves extremely
ill people who don't have insurance, survived another year.
So did prenatal care to about 7,000 women, which the Senate
Public schools will get a modest increase of 4.5 percent
per student next year, with most of that money for reducing
class sizes, not teacher salaries.
"This still is a good year for education," said
Rep. Bev Kilmer, R-Quincy, head of the House K-20 Committee.
"The schools are going to come out fine."
Undergraduate tuition at the 11 universities will go up 7.5
percent next year, the ninth consecutive tuition increase.
Out-of-state, graduate and professional students' tuition
will go up at least 12.5 percent, and could climb to 15 percent,
depending on the school.
The average instate student would pay an extra $219, raising
the annual bill to $3,139. Florida has one of the lowest tuition
rates in the nation.
"I think we have to start worrying about middle-class
families," said John Cavanaugh, president of the University
of West Florida in Pensacola. "Families could be stretched."
Lawmakers carved out $120 million for water projects, including
several in the Tampa Bay area, and $300-million for land conservation.
State workers will get $1,000 more. An effective antismoking
program was shrunk to $1-million from a high of $70-million
five years ago after getting nothing last year. Counties will
be forced to cover the cost of housing juvenile offenders
from the state, estimated at $90-million statewide.
The most contentious budget issue involved the arcane school
funding formula, which seeks to compensate counties with high
costs of living.
Pinellas is one of 10 counties that will lose $100,000 or
more under the formula, but the compromise includes a one-year
provision to cushion the blow, funded with the smaller tax
breaks on gasoline and school purchases.
Hillsborough and Pasco are among 11 districts that will get
at least $1 million more.
Miami-Dade and Broward took the hardest hit - a combined
$17.9 million for 2004-05, and nearly $36-million less the
following year from 2003-04.
The House had opposed the new formula, even though it benefited
Hillsborough, Byrd's home county. Byrd, a U.S. Senate candidate
with strong backing from South Florida House members, persuaded
the Senate to accept the $22-million cushion.
House budget chief Bruce Kyle, R-Fort Myers, said money is
set aside for unresolved items, including new judges and a
sixth District of Court of Appeal in Tampa. Kyle supports
the new appeals court but conceded that senators resist the
Senate Democratic Leader Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach, said
the budget didn't go far enough. Too many kids who need health
insurance won't get it. Students will have to pay more to
get an education, Klein said.
"The budget is still tough," Klein said. "The
priorities are skewed."
Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa, was ecstatic that the gasoline
tax he proposed was going to pass, a rare Democratic victory
in a Republican-dominated Legislature, though he wanted a
10-cent cut. "This is not unusual, this wrangling at
the end of session," Henriquez said. "It doesn't
bother me at all. We'll take the eight cents."