Florida legislative budget negotiators reach deal on key spending issues

Gov. Rick Scott delivers his State of the State address Tuesday, March 5, 2013, in the Florida House of Representatives in Tallahassee, Fla. The Florida Legislature convened today for its annual 60-day session. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

Gov. Rick Scott delivers his State of the State address Tuesday, March 5, 2013, in the Florida House of Representatives in Tallahassee, Fla. The Florida Legislature convened today for its annual 60-day session. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart

State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart

TALLAHASSEE _ Budget negotiators struck a series of deals in an evening meeting Friday, bringing them closer to a final agreement on a $74 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, made essentially final agreements on budgets affecting everything from education to economic development to agriculture. Still left to be done: health care, funding for the justice system and a series of statewide budget issues such as pay increases for employees.

Negron and McKeel agreed to a 3 percent tuition increase at the state's colleges and universities, in defiance of Gov. Rick Scott's repeated insistence that the state hold down the cost of higher education. Scott told reporters Tuesday that he couldn't believe the House was pushing for a 6 percent hike.

"Florida families can't afford it," he said.

But the lawmakers pointed out that they also increased funding for the Bright Futures scholarship program by 3 percent and boosted other financial aid programs, including an additional $3.3 million in need-based aid.

"We've made a number of wise investments in making sure that students in Florida can attend college," Negron said. "So, I think that far outweighs the modest tuition increase."

Lawmakers also said they had followed Scott's advice in boosting funding for public education and in other areas.

"Many of the governor's priorities are funded in the budget. ... I don't see that conflict," McKeel said when asked what might happen if Scott vetoes the tuition increase.

The budget negotiators also agreed to allow Florida Forever to spend up to $70 million in land conservation, though they only budgeted $20 million in funds to pay for conservation; the other $50 million would come from potential state land sales.

Scott had asked for $25 million in cash in addition to the potential land proceeds.

"I'd say the governor's done pretty well on the environmental budget," said Janet Bowman of The Nature Conservancy.

The deal also calls for $70 million for Everglades restoration and $11.1 million for conservation easements.

Lawmakers also agreed to give Scott $71.1 million for economic-development incentives, including $26.1 million rolled forward from this year. Scott had asked for $278 million in incentives to lure a large project. Visit Florida would get an additional $20 million, while a Space Florida financing initiative would get $7 million.

The agreements made Friday dealt almost exclusively with the money in the budget; lawmakers still need to hammer out the fine print dictating specifically how some of the money can be used and reach compromises on several budget-related bills.

McKeel and Negron plan to meet again Saturday morning.

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