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TALLAHASSEE — More money didn’t mean more problems during the 2013 legislative session, but Southwest Florida lawmakers said it did mean more wiggle room when it came to crafting the state budget.
Florida lawmakers passed a $74.5 billion budget Friday before closing out the annual 60-day legislative session. The budget includes pay raises for state workers and teachers, but doesn’t include federal dollars to cover additional people under Medicaid.
The state Senate approved the budget unanimously Friday. Minutes later, the state House of Representatives approved it 106-11. Each member of the Southwest Florida legislative delegation voted for the budget.
“Our No. 1 priority is a balanced budget, and it’s balanced with both parties weighing in on it,” said Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples. “We funded some great projects around the state, but the money was not wasteful. I think that’s why you heard bipartisan support for the budget. It was very balanced, very fair and really in the best interest of our citizens.”
The fiscal 2013-14 budget is about 6 percent larger than the current year’s budget, but lawmakers insisted the final budget is fiscally conservative.
“I believe the budget meets the priority needs for the state of Florida and at the same time has just under $3 billion in reserves and does not have any increases in taxes,” said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples. “The combination of all those comments is a successful, fiscally responsible budget for the state of Florida.”
The budget increases K-12 public school funding to $18.2 billion, a $1 billion year-over-year increase. This will be the second year in a row the state Legislature has increased the K-12 budget by more than $1 billion.
A big portion of that budget will be given to school districts to increase teacher salaries. That was a top priority for Gov. Rick Scott, who earlier this year said he hoped the budget would include $480 million to give each classroom teacher a $2,500 pay raise.
The Naples Republican got the money, but the payout didn’t pan out exactly how he wanted. Instead, the money will be given to school districts to hand out raises that are based, in part, on performance and negotiated with unions.
The governor didn’t get support for the teacher raises he wanted, but Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, said the governor — and the state as a whole — should be pleased with the fact that education remained a priority throughout session.
“The advantage this year is we have an increase in revenue, so it’s allowed us to put some more money toward education and it’s allowed us to do some things we haven’t been able to do for several years,” he said. “All in all, it’s a good budget and it’s going to serve Florida well.”
Rodrigues said the state is making strides to restore funding to programs that experienced cuts in recent years.
Educators won’t be the only ones who get more cash from the 2013-14 budget. Lawmakers also agreed to give state workers their first across-the-board raise in seven years.
The increases will go to more than 160,000 people who work at state agencies and 12 public universities. Those who earn $40,000 or less will receive a $1,400 raise, while those who currently earn more than that will get a $1,000 raise.
About 35 percent of all state workers will be eligible for a $600 performance bonus.
Higher education also will see more money in the coming year, but the money won’t come from state coffers alone. The budget includes a 3 percent tuition increase for college and university students across the state. Scott, however, has said he staunchly opposes an increase and could veto the bill.
The approved budget had millions of dollars that legislators set aside on hometown projects, ranging from a cross-state multi-use trail to lighthouse renovations.
Scott has warned that he will expect legislators to justify many of the items placed in the spending plan. He could use his line-item veto to eliminate any projects he doesn’t like.
One expenditure that was missing from the state budget was using federal dollars to expand Medicaid in Florida. While the budget includes federal money tied to the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, to increase payments to primary care doctors who treat Medicaid patients, House Republicans remained opposed to accepting federal funding for an expansion.
Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, who served on the House’s health-care appropriations committee, said more money meant the state could restore funding to programs in need.
“These resources are able to be better utilized by the citizens of Florida by going directly to the people. For the first time in years, we could provide additional resources to people with mental health and substance abuse issues; we could address proactively children and youth who are having issues with mental health,” Hudson said.
“And we could, for the first time, take loads of people off the Agency for Disabilities wait list. I look at that and say, you know what, wow. That’s a really good thing.”
But passing a balanced budget wasn’t the only plus-side Friday. For the first time in recent history, lawmakers wrapped up the annual session well before the sun set.
“That’s a huge plus,” Hudson said. “That’s a win right there.”
__ The Associated Press contributed to this report.